The data bill debate must move beyond terrorists and Orwell

It is wrong to define the argument over the bill as one between security and liberty.

For almost a decade, the intelligence and policing community has been worried that changes in modern communications – mainly the shift from telephones to more varied devices and networks – would make their work more difficult. And each government of the day has tried (and failed) to push through legislation to update capabilities in the face of staunch opposition.

The latest attempt is the draft Communications Data Bill. To recap, the Bill aims to improve government access to internet "communications data" (who, when, and where you communication with someone, but not what you say to them). Communications data are vital for law enforcement, intelligence work and the Crown Prosecution Service. When these agencies needed this information, they used to go to the small number of telecommunications companies who collected it. Now of course we communicate via e-mail, social media messaging, phone apps, game platforms and more - so now communications data are being generated by all sorts of companies who don’t routinely collect or save it, and so it's not always there when needed. The Bill is asking/demanding/paying relevant companies to collect and retain it, so that such data is available on request.

Such was the furore when it was announced back in April that a pre-legislative joint committee was scrambled to calm the maelstrom and review the proposals. Today it published its report. Anyone familiar with the Bill would not have been surprised by its findings. To sum it up as briefly as possible: yes, the government needs to improve access to communications data, but the Home Office did not make the case well enough, nor consult widely enough. The powers contained in the Bill are too broad in scope - and greater oversight is needed. Go back and re-draft it. The committee has been extremely diligent (and I hope David Davis MP will apologise to the chair, Lord Blencathra, whom he had little faith in). But I think there are three big lessons from this whole affair.

First, the bitter rancour surrounding this Bill is caused by a fundamental problem. State surveillance needs to be proportionate and necessary, but these words are losing all meaning, because no one really understands the technology and the possible risks and benefits that come with it as internet-enabled devices become ever more ubiquitous, least of all our law makers.  When critics protest the measures will not work, or 'we're the only country that does this', the Home Office are unable to respond with technical details for obvious reasons. And the government wants to make the legislation broad – ‘future proofed’ - because the technology will have moved on again soon, and they don’t want to go through this again in two years. This Civil liberty groups, understandably, weren’t too pleased about that. This is going to get worse in future.

Second: terrorism and paedophiles do not automatically trump digital rights. The Home Secretary, Theresa May, has consistently argued the new Bill is essential to tackle terrorism, serious crime and paedophilia. She may have believed that any law strengthening powers to do that would be more or less accepted. In that, I believe she may have underestimated how important digital freedoms and data sovereignty are to people today. Surveys consistently show that data and privacy are among the top concerns citizens have. The online and privacy community – often tech savvy, networked, and highly defensive of internet freedom – are a powerful lobby group.  

Third, any legislation about security powers tends to degenerate quickly into a debate about terrorists versus an Orwellian dystopia. Last Monday, in an interview with the Sun, the Home Secretary said that anyone against the draft Bill is putting politics ahead of people’s lives; and came close to saying anyone opposed to the Bill is taking the side of those criminals, terrorists and paedophiles. It was an unfortunate and inaccurate charge levelled against the Bill’s many thoughtful and principled opponents. But the Bill’s opponents have also been alarmist by (inaccurately in my view) calling it a "snoopers' charter" and claiming it represents mass internet surveillance. Suggestions that this Bill would put us alongside China, Iran and Khazakstan are wholly inaccurate. When giving evidence to the committee, the Observer journalist Henry Porter (who also called the Bill the "megalomaniac dream" of a senior civil servant) said that these measures could become "the structure for a police state" – something the Crown Prosecution Service and others that have actually used communications data dismissed.

Ignore the papers this morning: the committee’s response is a sober and careful one. At core, it recognises that the philosophical pros and cons of the Bill are not really about security versus liberty, but the more nuanced debate of pro-active data collection (collecting and retaining data so it’s there if you need it) against a more limited one (using what you have), and whether we need to ‘future proof’ law of this kind (it thinks not). It realises that modern communication has changed dramatically, and law enforcement must keep up, including in designing a regulatory system that reflects the changing concerns people have about privacy. It recognises this is not easy and will ultimately fall to Parliament.

This means going back and re-drafting a Bill that trades a bit of operational secrecy for clarity about when and where the measure will be used. Above all, the Home Office should consult more widely, and then set about some improved drafting to eliminate worrying ambiguities, give a tighter clarity of purpose, and include tougher scrutiny and oversight. A revised Bill could keep both sides content.  This is all less interesting than terrorists and Orwell, of course, but then making law usually is.

Jamie Bartlett is the head of the Violence and Extremism Programme and the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

Home Secretary Theresa May warned MPs who oppose the bill: "Do not put politics before people’s lives." Photograph: Getty Images.

Jamie Bartlett is the head of the Violence and Extremism Programme and the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

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Manchester attack: Theresa May condemns "warped and twisted" terrorist

The Prime Minister said the police were treating the explosion at the Manchester Arena as "an appalling terrorist attack".

At least 22 people are dead and around 59 have been injured, including children, after an explosion at a concert arena in Manchester that is being treated as a terrorist attack.

Police believe the attack was carried out by a single suicide bomber, who also died. However, the police have also announced the arrest of a 23-year-old man in South Manchester in connection with the attack.

Speaking before the announcement, chief constable Ian Hopkins said: "We have been treating this as a terrorist attack." The attacker was named by papers late on Tuesday as Salman Abedi, a British man of Libyan heritage. The source for this is US, rather than British, intelligence.

The victims were young concertgoers and their parents. Victims include the 18 year old Georgina Callander and the eight year old Saffie Rose Roussos.

The Prime Minister Theresa May earlier said that the country's "thoughts and prayers" were with those affected by the attack. 

She said: "It is now beyond doubt that the people of Manchester and of this country have fallen victim to a callous terrorist attack, an attack that targeted some of the youngest people in our society with cold calculation.

"This was among the worst terrorist incidents we have ever experienced in the United Kingdom, and although it is not the first time Manchester has suffered in this way, it is the worst attack the city has experienced and the worst ever to hit the north of England."

The blast occurred as an Ariana Grande concert was finishing at Manchester Arena on Monday night. According to May, the terrorist deliberately detonated his device as fans were leaving "to cause maximum carnage". 

May said the country will struggle to understand the "warped and twisted mind" that saw "a room packed with young children" as "an opportunity for carnage". 

"This attack stands out for its appalling, sickening cowardice deliberately targeting innocent and defenceless children," she said. "Young people who should have been enjoying one of the most memorable nights of their lives."

She thanked the emergency services "on behalf of the country" for their "utmost professionalism" and urged anyone with information about the attack to contact the police. 

"The general election campaign has been suspended. I will chair another meeting of Cobra later today."

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Ending her statement, she said: 

"At terrible moments like these it is customary for leaders politicians and others to condemn the perpetrators and declare that the terrorists will not win. But the fact we have been here before and we need to say this again does not make it any less true. For as so often while we experienced the worst of humanity in Manchester last night, we also saw the best.

"The cowardice of the attacker met the bravery of the emergency services and the people of Manchester. The attempt to divide us met countless acts of kindness that brought people together and in the days ahead those must be the things we remember. The images we hold in our minds should not be those of senseless slaughter, but the ordinary men and women who put their own concerns for safety aside and rushed to help."

Emergency services, including hundreds of police, worked overnight to recover the victims and secure the area, while families desperately searched for their children. The dead included children and teenagers. The injured are being treated at eight hospitals in Greater Manchester, and some are in critical condition. 

The so-called Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attack, although this has not been independently verified, and the organisation has been slow to respond. 

Theresa May chaired a Cobra meeting on Tuesday morning and another in the afternoon. She said police believed they knew the identity of the perpretator, and were working "at speed" to establish whether he was part of a larger network. She met Manchester's chief constable, the Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, and members of the emergency services. A flat in a Manchester suburb has been raided. 

There were reports overnight of strangers offering their homes to concertgoers, and taxis taking people away from the scene of the explosion for free.

As the news broke, Grande, who had left the stage moments before the attack, tweeted that she felt "broken". 

Manchester's newly elected metro mayor, Andy Burnham, called the explosion "an evil act" and said: "After our darkest of nights Manchester is waking up to the most difficult of dawns."

He thanked the emergency services and the people of Manchester, and said "it will be business as usual as far as possible in our great city". 

Extra police, including armed officers, have been deployed on the streets of the city, and the area around the Manchester Arena remains cordoned off. Victoria Station is closed. 

The main political parties suspended campaigning for the general election for at least 24 hours after the news broke. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said: “I am horrified by the horrendous events in Manchester last night. My thoughts are with families and friends of those who have died and been injured.

“Today the whole country will grieve for the people who have lost their lives."

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “My thoughts are with the victims, their families and all those who have been affected by this barbaric attack in Manchester."

Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, a city which suffered a terrorist attack two months ago, tweeted that: "London stands with Manchester."

The attack happened while many Brits were sleeping, but international leaders have already been offering their condolences. Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada, tweeted that: "Canadians are shocked by the news of the horrific attack in Manchester." The Parliament of Australia paused for a minute's silence in remembrance of the dead. 

 

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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