The hideous events in Woolwich are already provoking a huge amount of reaction – strong, intense, often very passionate reaction. Understandably so. I don’t want to go into that, for a whole lot of reasons. One reaction, however, I think we need to be very wary of: allowing our shock and horror at the events to allow us to bring in oppressive and counter-productive ‘counter-terrorism’ legislation.
It has happened before, most notably with the Data Retention Directive, described by Peter Hustinx, the European Data Protection Supervisor, as the EU’s most privacy invasive tool, which was passed shortly after the London 7/7 bombings, and even mentions those bombings in its preamble. Already, there have been a number of people hinting that these events in Woolwich mean that we should bring back the Communications Data Bill (the ‘Snoopers’ Charter’). For me, those calls should be resisted, and resisted strongly.
Apart from the obvious need to take time to reflect on these things (knee-jerk reactions of any kind are generally to be avoided), the question of whether it’s right to regard an individual murder of any kind, no matter how gruesome, as ‘terrorism’, the question of whether any kind of surveillance would have picked out the kind of person who carries out such brutality, and other direct and important information that we have yet to discover, it’s crucial to remember that the objections to legislation like the Communications Data Bill still hold true.
Surveillance is rarely just about terrorism
Terrorism is often used as the trigger for this kind of legislation and the ‘excuse’ for this kind of surveillance – because terrorism always provokes an emotional reaction, and provokes fear (that’s really the point of it – hence the name) and when people are afraid they’re more likely to accept authoritarianism. The surveillance then brought in won’t actually be used for terrorism that much – and when you look closely at the legislation that always becomes clear. In the Data Retention Directive, though it mentions the London bombings in the preamble, actually allows member states to use the powers granted for any kind of ‘serious crime’ that they want. In the UK, for example, that would include fraud, and hence benefit fraud and so forth. It may seem a huge leap from terrorism to benefit fraud – and it should – but in the legislation, that’s what happens. The Communications Data Bill was written in just the same kind of way – though Theresa May talked about terrorism, the powers granted could have been used for pretty much anything by a wide range of authorities.
We don’t even know if this kind of surveillance works
Peter Hustinx has at various times challenged those behind the Data Retention Directive to give some kind of evidence that the intensely privacy-invasive powers granted by it had actually produced results. Many of those of us questioning the people putting forward the Communications Data Bill to do the same – and none has been provided. We really don’t know whether it works – and for people to suggest that it would stop atrocities like that which happened in Woolwich is speculative at best.
Indeed, the evidence presented to the Parliamentary committee that scrutinised the Communications Data Bill almost all suggested that this kind of surveillance wouldn’t work – that it would only catch the innocent and the incompetent. The innocent shouldn’t be caught, and the incompetent would be caught anyway, by more conventional means.
A distraction from conventional policing
…and therein lies another of my concerns about the knee-jerk techno-legislative approach of the Communications Data Bill. What helped in Woolwich was conventional policing – and a lot of bravery. Right now, when some people are pushing for more hi-tech surveillance, the government is cutting conventional police numbers and police resources – and appears to be working towards at least piecemeal privatisation of the police, giving more contracts to G4S and Serco. For me, the resources that might be spent on the Communications Data Bill (the conservative estimate of £1.8 billion was roundly criticised by the committee – it could be much more) would be better spent on conventional policing, on conventional intelligence – and on avoiding the risks of privatisation.
No knee-jerk reactions
The latter is a bit of a political point, and not perhaps the most important. The most important, however, is to be patient, to be intelligent, and not to allow ourselves to be drawn into knee-jerk reactions. In legislative terms, knee-jerk reactions generally produce bad law – ineffective at best, counter-productive at worst. In the current political climate this is a particular risk.