Hold on — haven’t we been here before? There’s something very familiar about the recent unveiling of new powers for the state to snoop on the UK population through a proposed new Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill.
I doubt that anyone reasonable argues with the superficial intent — to detect criminals (specifically terrorists) and bring them to justice. The much more complex issue is the question of where lines are drawn: what is the most appropriate way of achieving that outcome? How much should the state intrude into everyone’s daily lives?
We need to find a solution that is proportional, sustainable and reasonable in our democratic state. The worst possible outcome would be that we blindly erode the very values we once used to uphold — not because someone bombed us day after day into doing so, but because we voluntarily surrendered our own freedoms, and hence our legitimacy, out of a misplaced sense of fear.
Part of the problem is that often these issues only seem to be considered through one lens: that of counter-terrorism. When in opposition, political parties tend to listen to a wide variety of expert opinion, and at least offer us the hope of developing reasonably balanced policies. Once in power however, governments seem to turn to single sources of truth, all of them peering through the same lens. Over time, it becomes almost impossible to distinguish a new government’s policy on these issues from the ones that preceded it, as their once-intended policy becomes progressively degraded.
These latest counter-terrorism proposals seem intended to work by eradicating any remaining vestiges of anonymity and privacy in our daily lives. This extinction of personal anonymity has profound implications — not just for journalists whose sources can no longer be protected, not just for MPs trying to meet in confidence with their constituents, or for NHS whistleblowers, but also for the police themselves. And indeed for the rest of us, just trying to muddle along and get on with our lives.
I do wonder which undercover criminal sources, or “double-agent” jihadists, are going to run the risk of communicating with or meeting with the police or intelligence agencies, when they know it’s no longer either secret or safe to do so? With that telltale, pointing-finger trail of mobile phone interactions and email exchanges left in their wake, who would risk putting their lives on their line? The risks for such essential insider informants are being multiplied by the very measures presumably intended to help.
I’m surprised we haven’t heard more from the likes of important players such as Crimestoppers — given that their assurances of anonymity for those wanting to help presumably plays a key role in encouraging people with information to come forward. Their site says they received over 100,000 pieces of useful information about crime from the public last year, and over 6,000 criminals were arrested and charged. Yet who has evaluated the impact that the removal of anonymity will have on such essential sources of information?
Without a proper debate, and a rigorous assessment of the likely real-world impacts of a further erosion of our online and electronic device privacy, who knows whether these latest familiar proposals changes will actually assist — or degrade — counter-terrorism intelligence work?
Part of the debate that we need includes news programmes and journalists asking these sort of questions: “What impact will the end of anonymity have on essential intelligence gathering sources like Crimestoppers?”, “How will the the police be able to meet with informers if all the details of who met with whom and when are automatically being gathered electronically?” and even (admittedly more self-serving) “How will journalists protect their sources?”. But ultimately these issues and their very real impacts are not going to go away merely because a properly informed debate doesn’t take place.
We need a much better public discussion about where these lines are drawn: what information is gathered, from whom, in what detail, what it is stored and how it is protected and how accessed. No computer system is 100% secure. There’s no such thing. Information will leak from the systems holding all these sensitive information. The odd rogue insider will occasionally — and inevitably — abuse their position: sources will be compromised, confidence undermined, sources of intelligence lost. Possibly far, far worse.
If these proposals do go ahead, the controls and democratically-accountable oversight regimes put into place must be robust and demonstrably independent to counterbalance them. Those who abuse the system — and they will — must be brought promptly and publicly to trial, and those who are inadvertently exposed — police sources, journalist sources, MPs’ constituents, NHS and financial services whistleblowers — rigorously protected. Parliament needs the capability, commitment and power to ensure our (unwritten) constitution is not undermined by the drip, drip, drip of incremental responses to the fear of terrorist activities.
To answer my own opening question — yes, we have been here before. And I’m sure we’ll be here again. We’ve seen this well-meaning, but one-sided perspective in the past: that’s partly what my semi-dramatised 2006 blog when guilty men go free was all about. When proposals such as this are put in front of us, they need to be robustly assessed by a credible public challenge rooted in the wider reality of the way our country operates and our people live their lives — and not simplistically considered through a counter-terrorism lens, darkly.