Lib Dem activists are prepared for war over the snoopers' charter

After repeated assaults on civil liberties by the coalition, the party's grass roots are angry, worried and very distrustful.

Like some political version of Schrödinger's cat, Lib Dem MPs appear to be trapped in a Westminster box, while activists stand outside, wondering if the fight for civil liberties is alive or dead within. We don’t know – but worryingly, there’s currently a hell of a stench of dead something or other coming from that direction.

Civil liberties are a touchstone issue for party members, lying at the core of why most joined the Lib Dems. And we’ve taken a hell of a battering. For example, this week our MPs voted against a set of proposed amendments in the Defamation Bill which would have made it harder for corporations to silence critics using the threat of libel. This despite the fact that it’s party policy and was proposed in the 2010 manifesto. Apparently, we’re on a promise that it can all get changed back again now it’s returned to the Lords. Although the initial reaction from the party doesn’t exactly fill, you with confidence.

A Liberal Democrat spokesman said the party would be instructing their MPs to vote with the Government. 'Unfortunately we are in a Coalition and this was one of those areas where we could not get our Conservative colleagues to agree with us,' he said

Nor does this excellent analysis of the situation from David Allen Green. And don’t forget all this is on the back of the Justice and Security Bill (secret courts, to you and me) debacle. Seven Lib Dem MPs rebelled over that Bill, fewer than the number who managed to show a bit of backbone during the rebellion over planning regulations this week. 

But what’s really keeping activists awake at night, the radioactive isotope that might release the Tory poison and kill the cat, is the new version of the Communications Data bill. You will recall, perhaps, that we were told last year, by a Lib Dem minister, no less - that :

The proposals being considered would simply update the current rules – which allow the police in criminal investigations to find out who was contacted and when – to cover new forms of technology that didn’t even exist when the original laws were made, like Skype

…and it was only when the party went stark raving bonkers that anyone in Westminster woke up and smelled the coffee.

By December, we had moved on considerably, with Nick saying, "we cannot proceed with this bill and we have to go back to the drawng board", which is about as clear as you can get and in marked contrast to his original comments.

But the grass roots party is angry, it’s worried and it’s very distrustful. You didn’t have to go through the last bill with a fine toothcomb to drive a coach and horses through its assault on civil liberties. This time , presumably, rather more care has been taken  - so activists are primed and ready to take whatever is proposed in the next Queen’s Speech apart word by word, line by line.

If the Westminster party thought the grass roots gave them a hard time on civil liberties before, just try and propose some legislation that does anything but roll back the state’s powers in this area. You haven’t seen anything yet.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

The Communications Data bill is being rewritten after Nick Clegg said the draft version was unacceptable. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Photo: Getty
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Mass surveillance doesn’t work – it’s time to go back to the drawing board

Lacking an answer to the problem of radicalisation, the government has confused tactics with strategy.

This week saw the release of not one but two parliamentary reports on the government’s proposed new spying law, the first from the Intelligence and Security Committee and the second from the Joint Committee on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill.

Both reports suggested the government hasn’t fully made the case for some elements of mass surveillance put forward in the Bill. But neither went so far as to ask the most important question in this debate – does mass surveillance actually work?

The proposed law, known as the Investigatory Powers Bill, looks set to enshrine almost all the government’s mass surveillance powers and capabilities in a single law for the first time. It has been touted by the Prime Minister as a vital weapon in the UK’s fight against Islamic State.

Most of the noise about mass surveillance since the Snowden revelations has predictably come from civil liberties groups. But the privacy and safeguards debate skips over the highly dubious assumption underpinning the Investigatory Powers Bill – that mass surveillance will stop terrorists.

In fact, mass surveillance is not only ineffective but downright counter-productive.

A 2009 report by the US government found that only 1.2 per cent of tips provided to the FBI by mass surveillance techniques made a significant contribution to counter-terrorism efforts. Another recent study by the New America Foundation found that National Security Agency mass data collection played a role in, at most, 1.8 per cent of terrorism cases examined. By contrast, traditional investigative methods initiated 60 per cent of investigations. Suddenly mass surveillance doesn’t seem so vital.

This is because the technology is far from perfect. As computer scientist Ray Corrigan has written, “Even if your magic terrorist-catching machine has a false positive rate of 1 in 1,000—and no security technology comes anywhere near this—every time you asked it for suspects in the UK it would flag 60,000 innocent people.”

Perversely, this lack of precision means mass surveillance can actually frustrate counter-terrorism efforts. Michael Adebolajo, who brutally murdered Fusilier Lee Rigby in 2013, was so well known to the security services prior to the attack they had even tried to recruit him as an informant. Yet insufficient monitoring later on let him slip through the net. The same thing happened with the Hebdo killers. Mass surveillance means intelligence analysts are forced to spend their time fruitlessly sifting through endless reams of data rather than carrying out the targeted monitoring and detection that’s really needed.

Counter-radicalisation experts have meanwhile argued that mass surveillance may alienate Muslim communities, making them distrustful of the police and possibly even contributing to radicalisation. In 2014, Jonathan Russell from the counter-extremism group Quilliam wrote that the “introduction of a sweeping [mass surveillance] law…will be exploited by extremists to show that the government wants to spy on its own citizens [and] that all Muslims are suspected of being terrorists.” This will set alarm bells ringing for those who know the fight against terrorism will ultimately be won only by preventing radicalisation in the first place.

And therein lies the real problem with this Bill. It’s tactics, not strategy. If we stop for a second and think about what the problem is – namely that thousands of young Britons are at risk of radicalisation – we’d never prescribe mass surveillance as the answer. It would be nonsensical to propose something that risks making alienation worse.

The trouble is we don’t have a convincing answer to the actual problem. The government’s counter-radicalisation strategy is mired in controversy. So instead a different question is being posed. Not how do we stop people from signing up to join Islamic State, but how do we gather as much communications data as possible? GCHQ have an answer for that. It’s a classic case of confusing a tactic – and a highly unreliable one at that – with a strategy actually designed to tackle the root of the problem.

Never mind our privacy for a moment. For the sake of our security, it’s time to go back to the drawing board and think of something better.

 

Andrew Noakes is Senior Advocacy Officer at the Remote Control Project. He writes about covert and unconventional methods of warfare, counter-terrorism, and human rights.