A U-turn on reversing the surveillance state

By resurrecting the Intercept Modernisation Programme, the government breaks a clear and fundamental

In all the fuss over the Spending Review, you will almost certainly not have seen that the appalling "Intercept Modernisation Programme" is to continue.

Let me explain. Buried in the recently released Strategic Defence and Security Review are government plans to introduce a programme to preserve the ability of the security, intelligence and law-enforcement agencies to obtain communication data and to intercept communications.

This, in no disguise at all, is the Intercept Modernisation Programme – which will allow the security services and the police to spy on the activities of everyone using a phone or the internet.

Every communications provider will be obliged to store details of your communications for at least a year and obliged in due course to surrender these to the authorities. The state will therefore be able to track every phone call, email, text message and website visit made by the public, on the absurd pretext that it will help to tackle crime or terrorism (and by the way, the significant costs of the programme will of course be passed on to . . . you).

This comes despite the Conservative Party's recent pledge to reverse the rise of the surveillance state.

I appreciate that this invitation may not be a welcome one for Staggers readers, but if you can bear it, do please have a look at that last link. It's remarkable that they've left the paper on the party's website; perhaps the thinking (and I say this as a Tory) is that everyone's so concerned with the Spending Review that nobody will notice the rank hypocrisy?

Whatever the explanation, leaving it up breaks with the long-standing tradition of repainting the commandments on the side of the barn whenever Napoleon changes his mind.

This U-turn can't be blamed on the formation of the coalition. The Liberal Democrats are (or hitherto have been) admirably sound on the issue and the coalition agreement promised to "end the storage of internet and email records without good reason".

Couple this with the disgusting U-turn on the Summary Care Record, in which all of our medical records are to be lumped together in one convenient-to-leak, convenient-to-snoop, convenient-to-break database (despite similarly clear and concrete pre-election promises from both governing parties to the contrary), and a troubling picture emerges.

It is fascinating and dreadful to see the speed of bureaucratic capture, the reversion to bureaucratic authoritarianism on show. Intrusions are piling up so fast that my extended essay published last week is already out of date.

Just see how the surveillance state is being reversed, eh!?

Alex Deane is director of Big Brother Watch, a barrister and a former chief of staff to David Cameron.

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.