Posts Tagged ‘Liberty’


Why we should be concerned

The revised Regulatory Powers bill has now been published and has been debated in parliament.  It is better known as the ‘snoopers’ charter’ and tries to put the interception activities of the security services on a sound legal footing.  The previous act, RIPA, was clearly inadequate and revelations by Edward Snowden revealed that it was being widely circumvented and ignored.

It has to noted that the public at large is mostly relaxed about the degree of intrusion into their electronic activity.  The wholesale interception of emails, phone calls, Skype, Facebook and the like arouses no great passions.  The general view can be summed up as ‘I’ve got nothing to hide so they’re welcome to look at my emails if they want to.’

The line put across by politicians is that these powers are needed to defeat the activities of terrorists; international criminals; people smugglers and the like is widely accepted and seen as a price worth paying if we are to remain safe and such people are to be put behind bars.  The paradox however is that if you ask people the question ‘do you trust politicians?’ you are likely – indeed almost certain – to receive a very dusty or robust answer.  They are seen  – often unfairly – as untrustworthy, interested in their own careers, acting as lobby fodder or simply being out of touch.  So allowing these individuals additional powers does seem to be something of a contradiction.

So what are the arguments about the Regulatory Powers Bill and why does it all matter?  First is the issue of trust to which we have already alluded.  Before Snowden, many of the same politicians were telling us that matters were under control and that warrants and searches were only used when strictly necessary.  It was then revealed that comprehensive snooping was underway and that the ministers concerned – including those on the select committee – had little or no idea of the scope of the activity.  GCHQ was hoovering up large quantities of information seemingly without any oversight.

David Davis MP with Kate Allen, Salisbury Cathedral

David Davis MP, 3rd from left

… and they still don’t.  Only a very few individuals get to see the core information since most of it is presented in terms of briefings.  This goes back to the war when the JIC was set up to look at all the information and then put it together to inform the cabinet committee.  Very few MPs have any serious experience of intelligence matters and the nature and sensitivity of the information they receive makes it difficult for them to find out.  David Davies MP says we have a ‘comforting illusion’ about our intelligence services which leads to complacency.

There is a natural tendency for all organisations to talk up the issues they deal with.  By highlighting risks it enables them to win resources in Whitehall battles and in battles with sister agencies.  This needs to be remembered when blood-curdling threat assessments are issued.

There is a belief that more is better.  By simply amassing more and more information using ever more powerful computers it is argued this will enable the intelligence services to protect us better.  The only problem is that time after time it has been found to be wanting.  The 45 minute claim is the most famous but there are others.  Only this week we read of the death of Ahmed Chalabi who misled the USA in many different ways over Iraq.  So despite the massive scale of the American intelligence system, the billions of dollars spent on the CIA and NSA, one man comprehensively fooled the State Dept. over a period of several years.

A fundamental issue at stake is one of power.  It was not so long ago, following the collapse of East Germany, that the scale of their intelligence activities by the Stasi were revealed.  Miles and miles of underground corridors existed with hundreds of thousands of files on almost every citizen in the state.  Children informed on their parents; brother informed on brother; neighbour on neighbour.  All typewriter fonts were recorded so that any typed samizdat could be traced.  It was a nightmare world of paranoia and poisoned a generation.  People in the West were horrified when this was revealed.  That was clumsy by comparison to what the agencies can do today in the internet era.  Yet we seem relaxed, not horrified.

The issue of power and who has it is central to the debate.  Our society is based on division of powers in part going back to Magna Carta.  For one group to have too much power is recognised as dangerous.  We have the Lords (however imperfect) and the Commons.  We have a separate judiciary.  We have a reasonably independent media.  These divisions prevent despotism or at least make it exceedingly hard to achieve.  In addition there are elections every 5 years.

By allowing the intelligence agencies, to pry into every communication, to intercept communications between lawyer and client; to intercept emails of human rights groups such as Amnesty and to tap into the phones of journalists, is extremely dangerous and alters the balance of power significantly.  All these things have happened.

It is also dangerous because of the frailty of the people in power.  Lord David Owen in his books has investigated the mental capacity of various leaders in times of stress particularly war.  In both The Hubris Syndrome (Politico) and in In Sickness and In Power (Methuen) he shows that senior politicians can be unstable and suffer from hubris.  This led for example, Tony Blair and George W Bush to ignore or manipulate intelligence to fit their beliefs and with disastrous results.

The thirst for power can itself be dangerous.  Obtaining it, holding on to it, fighting off those who want to take it from them, and wielding it, can be the all consuming passion for a politician.  It is for these very reasons we should be extremely wary of granting them the advantage of even more intrusion.

It might reasonably be asked however, what about terrorist activity and especially a group like ISIS (or whatever we agree to call them)?  They are undoubtedly a cruel and dangerous organisation.  But they are not an existential threat to the UK.  Even if they manage to pull off some outrage in this country, it cannot be argued that they will change our way of life.  Giving up our liberties and our right to privacy is a heavy price to pay on the uncertain promise of greater security.

Our freedoms and liberties have been acquired over many centuries and we should be extremely wary at giving them up.  Vague promises of judicial oversight – which are empty since they will only oversee the process not the actual decision – should not blind us to the fundamental risk this bill will pose if it gets enacted.  Combined with the intention of scrapping the Human Rights Act, this is something to be worried about.

Draft_Investigatory_Powers_Bill


Sources

Guardian, 9 Nov 2015 ‘We haven’t had a Stasi or Gestapo, so we are intellectually lazy about surveillance‘  Interview with David Davis MP

Shami Chakrabarti, On Liberty Penguin Politics 2015.  Discusses threats to liberty generally.

FH Hinsley British Intelligence in the Second World War HMSO 1979.  Discusses how intelligence was organised and presented during the war.


Teresa May, Home Secretary

Teresa May, Home Secretary

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

GCHQ

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.

Sources:

Liberty; Amnesty International; The Spectator*; The Guardian


A significant step forward was made today against the excessive and arguably illegal interception of messages by the secret services and in particular, GCHQ. The hoovering of email, Skype, Facebook and other electronic messaging services was indiscriminate and is likely to have been illegal. Assurances that this surveillance is tightly controlled have been shown to be untrue.

wire tap imageThe ruling by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) – a secretive legal body responsible for monitoring the shadowy world of the UK secret services – said that GCHQ’s access to (and use of) private communications swept up in bulk by the National Security Agency (NSA) breached human rights laws. This is the first time in its 15-year history that the IPT has ruled against an intelligence agency. The landmark verdict proves that mass surveillance sharing on such an industrial scale was unlawful, and a violation of our rights to privacy and to free expression.

Liberty, Privacy International and Amnesty, brought the case against the agencies, following the disclosures about mass surveillance made by whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013. Thanks to Snowden’s revelations, the world is now aware of the extraordinary scale on which US and UK security services intercept and store our digital communications, including emails, messages on social networks and internet histories.

That includes not just the UK getting hold of what the US has picked up in its ‘Upstream’ and ‘PRISM’ programmes (which can cover Google, Facebook and other US-based internet platforms), but the UK’s very own ‘full-take’ Tempora system, which scoops up every single communication that passes through the UK. It’s very possible that highly sensitive communications between activists around the world have been monitored as part of these programmes. It also seems that journalists have been monitored as well as lawyers’ communications with their clients.

The IPT’s ruling acknowledged that the sharing of these communications between the US and UK governments violated human rights law until the end of last year. But even now the UK government will not publicly accept that these mass surveillance programs even exist.

The government has been playing a cat and mouse game over surveillance – talking about ‘national security’ while trying to cover up unlawful behaviour in its use of private data.

Secret rules about secret practices

Before this case was brought, there was simply no public information whatsoever about how and when the UK thought it could handle the data which the US had obtained. We had to force them to disclose what turned out to be a puny two-paragraph public summary of those rules during the case.  Due to that disclosure, the IPT ruled in December that the sharing of surveillance date between the UK and US is now lawful because there is supposedly enough ‘signposting’ in public about what is going on ‘below the waterline’.

So, that means up until that disclosure, the spying programme broke the law – but because they revealed a few vague details of how they gather and store that information – it’s now legal for them to continue doing so.

 Amnesty International strongly disagree with this decision.

Those forced disclosures made by the government are insufficient and fall far short of making its activities lawful.  We won’t stop here – we are planning to challenge the earlier ruling at the European Court of Human Rights.  But until then, while we’re pleased to see it acknowledged the programme has been unlawful up until very recently, the ruling means that the two spy agencies will retain unrestricted access to global communications with minimal safeguards in place.

We have argued before on this site that we accept that intelligence agencies have to intercept messages in their fight against terrorists and others bent on doing us harm. This interception must be under political control and scrutiny and done on a needs must basis. We also expect the media to keep a close eye on the politicians not least because trust in them is so low.

But what seems to have happened is that scrutiny consists of chats between the Security Commission and the security agencies and that there is a failure by the parliamentary committee to ask searching questions. The press have been largely silent and ineffective. It is no surprise therefore that the general public remain unconcerned about the activities of the security services. ‘I’ve got nothing to hide’ is a popular response. People seemed relaxed to see a reduction in their privacy to secure an imaginary increase in their security. Stories are frequently told of terrorist plots being uncovered by the use of such methods.

The bizarre thing is that if one asks the question of someone ‘do you trust politicians?’ you are likely to receive a ribald answer (or a black eye). Yet we seem to.