Our right to communicate without surveillance could be swept out the back door. Photo: Flickr/Yuri Samoilov
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Has terrorism already claimed its next victim in Britain: our right to privacy?

An uncivil liberty.

Following last week’s tragic events in France, the world has spoken out in solidarity against religious extremism, and in support of the freedom of expression. But alongside this, another narrative has emerged. In the name of safety, British officials have begun arguing in favour of stronger powers for the security services to intercept personal data.

Back in 2012, the Conservative government initiated the Communications Data Bill, legislation that quickly became known as the Snooper’s Charter. The proposed bill would allow security services the same surveillance access to people’s email, internet and social media use as it currently enjoys over traditional communication methods such as letters and landline calls.

David Cameron has said that he will reintroduce the Snooper’s Charter if May’s general election is won by the Conservatives, while both Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband have stressed the need for caution in legislating on areas with the potential to infringe upon civil liberties. The Liberal Democrats have already blocked attempts to pass the Snooper’s Charter under the coalition government.

Andrew Parker, director general of MI5, said soon after the Paris attacks that a similar event on British soil is “highly likely”. He also suggested that his agency’s inability to monitor digital communications is problematic in terms of preventing such an attack: “Whenever we lose visibility of what they are saying to each other, so our ability to understand and mitigate the threat they pose is reduced.”

But the Snooper’s Charter is unlikely to be the right move to support security services in their mission to defend the public against terrorism. The Intelligence and Security Committee report into the murder of Lee Rigby found that the soldier’s killers were known to the security services but deemed low risk. Ongoing surveillance was stopped due to a lack of funding for action on suspects classified at this level. In the case of Paris, too, the attackers were known to French intelligence, but limited resources were diverted away from continued monitoring.

Rather than an increase in surveillance powers, a more reasonable request would be for an increase in resources for the monitoring of low-risk suspects, including the recruitment of a new group of skilled intelligence analysts to do so. A more effective approach, as opposed to a wider-reaching net, would surely be more beneficial all round.

GCHQ already holds unprecedented abilities to intercept the online communications of citizens through its Tempora programme, as revealed in last year’s leaks by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. The difficulty for security services at the moment is that their technological capacities far outweigh the scope of the legislation that currently exists. To some extent, the introduction of the Snooper’s Charter would be retrospective, looking to legally justify the abilities that GCHQ already have and implement.

The Lord Ashcroft poll released yesterday gives the Tories a six-point lead over Labour. If this is to be seen as a public reaction to Cameron’s position on how best to defend Britain against terrorism, we find ourselves in worrying times. As people take to the streets to celebrate and defend free speech in light of the Paris attacks, our right to communicate without surveillance could be swept out the back door.

Does Britain now stand as a nation prepared to hand over its civil liberties in the name of "safety"? If so, terrorism has already claimed its next victim: our right to privacy.

Lauren Razavi is a freelance columnist and features writer. Follow her on Twitter @LaurenRazavi.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear