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.