The British, like the sheep they raise, are generally a docile bunch and don’t seem to complain much when their civil liberties are trod upon. This month, we found out that the Home Office are to resurrect plans for electronic surveillance. Originally conceived in 2008 by the previous Labour government, this entails tracking the details (but not content) of every website visited, text, phone call and email ever sent, it was dropped because of cross-party outcry over civil liberties. Now it’s back; and in real time. And with wider scope than ever.
I don’t want to look at the details of this proposal yet, I am developing an article on it currently and will release it when it is complete. However, I do want to look at to whom exactly we are entrusting these new powers, their track record and the shadow this casts over the future.
Data about communications made and received will also be available to 652 public bodies, including the police and councils. The Home Office said the content of calls and texts would not be read and insisted the move was vital to tackle serious crime and terrorism.
Security of the Data
Although not reported constantly in main stream media, there are data security breaches in government departments every week. Public confidence in the governments’ ability to look after data has been dented in recent years with many high profile failures, including the loss of a CD carrying all the personal details of every child benefit claimant.
“While the public is “sleepwalking” into a surveillance society, the government seems to have its eyes wide open although, unfortunately, to everything except security,” said Jamie Cowper, data protection expert at data protection firm PGP Corporation.
“The bottom line is – information of this nature should only be held if – and only if – it can be demonstrated that an appropriate system of checks and balances is in place and the security of the information being stored is of paramount concern,” he added.
The more people who have access to it the more risks there would be
Chris Mayers, Citrix Systems
It would extend the powers of RIPA (the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act) which currently allows hundreds of government agencies access to communications data. Some believe such legislation, which requires government authorities to request information from communication providers, is more than adequate for law enforcement purposes.
A person’s location can be pinpointed to within a few feet by identifying the mobile phone mast used to transmit their call. Shami Chakrabarti, director of civil rights group Liberty, said people were more concerned than ever about their personal privacy, especially how many bodies had access to their phone records.
“There are actually a very broad range of purposes for which this information about who we’ve been phoning and when can be revealed,” Ms Chakrabarti said. “It includes, for example, the Gaming Board, the Food Standards Authority and every district and county council in the country.” She said requests for information would not be limited to those concerning serious crime and national security. “We’re talking about a profile that can be built of your personal relationships on the basis of who you’ve been speaking to and when.”
Police enforcement of the anti-terror laws has created some unintended consequences, including the shooting of the innocent Jean Charles de Menezes as he ran to catch a train. Others are just nutty, and the government’s proposals to deal with terrorism seem more designed to combat civil liberties than terror.
• A 34-year-old woman arrested for walking to work on a bike path, instead of cycling, in an area secretly designated a “designated area” and held under the “anti-terrorism act.”
• An 82-year-old man (and a younger man who jumped in to assist him) tossed out of the Labour conference for heckling Jack Straw.
• A French journalist held for hours after wearing a bulky jacket and neglecting to make eye contact.
• On the DLR, where a tourist was surrounded by police officers after taking videos.
• The establishment of a “no protest” zone which includes a vast swath around Westminster. You can’t say anything or wear anything that might be anti-goverment or considered protest.
We have become objects of suspicion to institutions that used to make us feel secure: banks, councils, the police. In turn, we distrust them.
A report by Harriet Sergeant for Civitas describes the recent jump in complaints by law-abiding people against the police. A 19 year old student was arrested and detained for five hours for holding a Tube lift door open with his foot A man was nicked for pulling over to answer a phone call. Each example sounds silly, tabloid. But there are too many -to ignore. Surrey Police’s recent decision to abandon box-ticking is a measure of their concern about the corrosion of their relationship with the public.
Each new measure is justified in the same way -you have nothing to fear if you have done nothing wrong, But that is no longer true. We have everything to fear from a State that has lost all sense of proportion. In a free society, rights and laws protect people from the government. In a tyranny, rights and laws protect government from the people. Often, the first thing people observe when visiting tyrannies are unpleasant and swaggering officials trying to impound passports. We don’t want to see them at the Eurostar.
What irks is that “they” don’t know us, only our data.
Why should we worry? The terrorists are out to get us; what’s the loss of a few civil liberties? We’re all willing to pay a price, aren’t we, for security?
Unfortunately, draconian laws don’t make us safer: When a young man is arrested for “walking while Muslim” and sent to jail for three months without charges being filed, and his family is visited by Muslim extremists trying to convince them the real enemy is the British government, and his little brother listens to their arguments, and he joins a terrorist cell to “get even”…then we’re not safer.
When police are allowed to arrest anyone, anytime, and conveniently mark it up to the anti-terrorism laws, we’re all in danger, even if we didn’t do the heckling or walk down a path intended for bicyclists.
Remember: when the police state arrests your neighbour, it’s not a far walk to your house.