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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Theresa May "indifferent" towards Northern Ireland, says Alliance leader Naomi Long

The non-sectarian leader questioned whether the prime minister and James Brokenshire have the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the impasse at Stormont.

Theresa May’s decision to call an early election reflects her “indifference” towards the Northern Ireland peace process, according to Alliance Party leader Naomi Long, who has accused both the prime minister and her Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the political impasse at Stormont.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman, Long – who is running to regain her former Belfast East seat from the DUP for her non-sectarian party in June – accused the Conservatives of “double messaging” over its commitment to Northern Ireland’s fragile devolution settlement. The future of power-sharing province remains in doubt as parties gear up for the province’s fourth election campaign in twelve months.

Asked whether she believed the prime minister – who has been roundly criticised at Stormont for her decision to go to the country early – truly cared about Northern Ireland, Long’s assessment was blunt. “We have had no sense at any time, even when she was home secretary, that she has any sensitivity towards the Northern Ireland process or any interest in engaging with it at all... It speaks volumes that, when she did her initial tour when she was prime minister, Northern Ireland was fairly low down on her list.”

The timing of the snap election has forced Brokenshire to extend the deadline for talks for a fourth time – until the end of June – which Long said was proof “Northern Ireland and its problems were not even considered” in the prime minister’s calculations. “I think that’s increasingly a trend we’ve seen with this government,” she said, arguing May’s narrow focus on Brexit and pursuing electoral gains in England had made progress “essentially almost impossible”.

“They really lack sensitivity – and appear to be tone deaf to the needs of Scotland and Northern Ireland,” she said. “They are increasingly driven by an English agenda in terms of what they want to do. That makes it very challenging for those of us who are trying to restore devolution, which is arguably in the worst position it’s been in [since the Assembly was suspended for four years] in 2003.”

The decisive three weeks of post-election talks will now take place in the weeks running up to Northern Ireland’s loyalist parade season in July, which Long said was “indicative of [May’s] indifference” and would make compromise “almost too big an ask for anyone”. “The gaps between parties are relatively small but the depth of mistrust is significant. If we have a very fractious election, then obviously that timing’s a major concern,” she said. “Those three weeks will be very intense for us all. But I never say never.”

But in a further sign that trust in Brokenshire’s ability to mediate a settlement among the Northern Irish parties is deteriorating, she added: “Unless we get devolution over the line by that deadline, I don’t think it can be credibly further extended without hitting James Brokenshire’s credibility. If you continue to draw lines in the sand and let people just walk over them then that credibility doesn’t really exist.”

The secretary of state, she said, “needs to think very carefully about what his next steps are going to be”, and suggested appointing an independent mediator could provide a solution to the current impasse given the criticism of Brokenshire’s handling of Troubles legacy issues and perceived partisan closeness to the DUP. “We’re in the bizarre situation where we meet a secretary of state who says he and his party are completely committed to devolution when they ran a campaign, in which he participated, with the slogan ‘Peace Process? Fleece Process!’ We’re getting double messages from the Conservatives on just how committed to devolution they actually are.”

Long, who this week refused to enter into an anti-Brexit electoral pact with Sinn Fein and the SDLP, also criticised the government’s push for a hard Brexit – a decision which she said had been taken with little heed for the potentially disastrous impact on Northern Ireland - and said the collapse of power-sharing at Stormont was ultimately a direct consequence of the destabilisation brought about by Brexit.

 Arguing that anything other than retaining current border arrangements and a special status for the province within the EU would “rewind the clock” to the days before the Good Friday agreement, she said: “Without a soft Brexit, our future becomes increasingly precarious and divided. You need as Prime Minister, if you’re going to be truly concerned about the whole of the UK, to acknowledge and reflect that both in terms of tone and policy. I don’t think we’ve seen that yet from Theresa May.”

She added that the government had no answers to the “really tough questions” on Ireland’s post-Brexit border. “This imaginary vision of a seamless, frictionless border where nobody is aware that it exists...for now that seems to me pie in the sky.”

However, despite Long attacking the government of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” to handle the situation in Northern Ireland effectively, she added that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn had similarly failed to inspire confidence.

“Corbyn has no more sensitivity to what’s going on in Northern Ireland at the moment than Theresa May,” she said, adding that his links to Sinn Fein and alleged support for IRA violence had made him “unpalatable” to much of the Northern Irish public. “He is trying to repackage that as him being in some sort of advance guard for the peace process, but I don’t think that’s the position from which he and John McDonnell were coming – and Northern Irish people know that was the case.” 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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