Paul McMullan and the denial of privacy

Why privacy is not just for "paedos".

The evidence of former News of the World journalist Paul McMullan to the Leveson inquiry was extraordinary and attention-grabbing. One almost wanted, following Blade Runner, for the barrister to ask McMullan what he would do if he saw a tortoise upside down in the sun. In the words of Graham Linehan on Twitter, it was as if McMullan was of another species.

What caused this response to his appearance and his evidence? It was perhaps the casual inhumanity and lack of any ethical concern. The only moment when McMullan showed any genuine disdain was when he dismissed his former editors as "scum" for what they did against him personally. But other than this flicker of defiance, his evidence was dark, depressing, and disconcerting.

And it was revealing. It gave the impression of a tabloid journalist simply thinking aloud, without any of the usual excuses, evasions, and euphemisms. The evidence was simply raw. It may well be that some of the evidence is unreliable, and it could also be that McMullan is not representative of tabloid journalism, but anyone who saw his stumbling and wince-inducing performance will probably never forget it.

At one point McMullan flatly rejected the general right of "privacy". It was a space, he contended, only for bad people to do bad things. Privacy, he assured the inquiry, was just for "paedos". Indeed, privacy was "evil".

Of course, McMullan cannot really believe this. Presumably the "toilet suite" he mentioned he wants for his Dover pub will come with cubicles fitted with doors and locks. One would hope he would not be a pub landlord who insists that all his customers defecate in an open room, at the risk of being denounced to the other customers as a child abuser.

In fact, everyone needs a private space to do certain things, even McMullan. Privacy is not an evil; it instead provides the sense of autonomy and dignity which is essential for any human being in a civilized society. There are questions as to how this basic human need for privacy is translated into effective legal remedies and how it is accorded respect by the tabloid media. There is also the difficult issue as to how privacy is balanced with publication of information in the public interest. But this does not mean that a person should not have a private space at all.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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