The government announced its fifth attempt to introduce the snooper’s charter in the Queen’s Speech a few weeks ago. Called the Investigatory Powers Bill, it looks to be more wide ranging than was previously expected. Most people seem to be quite relaxed about this. There few signs of a grass roots campaign taking place and there do not seem to many letters to national papers on the subject.
In conversation people will say things like ‘if they want to listen in to me chatting to a friend they are welcome’ and ‘I’ve got nothing to hide’ is a popular refrain or they accept that it is a price we have to pay for increased surveillance of terrorist threats. Some do not believe it possible with the millions, nay billions of emails; phone calls; Skype sessions; tweets and so forth, that it would ever be possible for the security services to do this, perhaps not understanding that it is metadata they are after.
There are few who would disagree with the need for our security services to look out for possible terrorist threats or indeed other major crime activities such as people or drug smuggling. The justification by ministers for the need for increased surveillance has been based on the fear of terrorist activity especially after the terrible outrage on 7/7 almost 10 years ago.
At the heart of the debate is the issue of trust. We cannot know much of what the security services do for fairly obvious reasons and this means the notion of transparency does not have much relevance. We want to trust however that the intelligence services do the right thing to protect us. We want to trust them to be concerned with terrorists and serious crime. We would like to be reassured that someone is in overall control who is able to ask the relevant questions. It is here that there is a problem: namely if you ask people ‘do you trust politicians?’ you are likely to receive a dusty answer. The sweeping powers demanded by ministers and in turn the intelligence agencies, gives them considerably increased powers to pry into our lives. The powers are sweeping in nature and in effect treat everyone as a suspect.
The report by David Anderson QC published this month is entitled ‘A Question of Trust’ tackles this issue head on. There have been a succession of scandals over the years which mean trust in politicians and those at the top of our society is extremely low. The Leveson enquiry revealed an unholy alliance between senior Metropolitan Police officers and sections of the media. Anderson proposes that oversight shall not be by politicians but by senior judges. Many would agree with this.
No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence. UN Declaration of Human Rights
The whole issue of trust emerged on 15 June with the results of the investigatory powers tribunal into
GCHQ. It emerged that this agency has been covertly monitoring two human rights organisations, one in South Africa and one in Egypt. The case was brought by Privacy International, Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union and Liberty. It made ‘no determination’ on whether GCHQ intercepted these latter organisations illegally. It is left open therefore whether they (we) are being monitored and their messages being intercepted.
So while ministers talk of terrorist threats to gain support for ever widening intrusion, their agencies intercept and monitor journalists, whistleblowers, human rights groups and defence lawyers in what has been termed a ‘scandalous misuse of terrorism legislation’*. Sir Tim Berners-Lee has observed that ‘the UK has lost the high moral ground and is doing things even the NSA weren’t’. We need to be extremely concerned at the government’s proposals.
Liberty; Amnesty International; The Spectator*; The Guardian