Woolwich and the case against the Snoopers’ Charter!

Some have suggested that Woolwich is a reason to resurrect the Communications Data Bill – the Snoopers’ Charter. Indeed, not only have the usual authoritarian suspects on all sides of the political field – Theresa May for the Tories, Lord Reid for Labour and Lord Carlile for the Lib Dems – spoken in favour of the resurrection of the Snooper’s Charter, but the latest suggestion is that Ed Miliband would be willing to help the Tories bring in the bill, even in the face of the planned opposition by the Liberal Democrats.

That, to me, is not only worrying but very foolish. The tragic and hideous events of Woolwich do not make the case for the Snoopers’ Charter. Indeed, precisely the opposite: they make a stronger case against the Snoopers’ Charter. They support the position taken by opponents of the Snooper’s Charter. What we need isn’t the clumsy bludgeon of universal surveillance – we need the sharp rapier of targeted and intelligent surveillance.

Would the Snoopers’ Charter have stopped the tragedy at Woolwich? No!

This much seems entirely clear. The perpetrators of the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby were, from almost all accounts, known to the authorities. The intelligence services didn’t need the Snoopers’ Charter to find them – and the powers envisaged in the Snoopers’ Charter would not have helped stop them either.

Would these powers help the authorities catch co-conspirators and connections of the perpetrators? Again, this seems far from likely – and the apparent successes by the authorities in tracking down others connected with the events suggest that it wasn’t lack of information that prevented the discovery of the murderous plan – or that they would be necessary in order to uncover anything more that was needed. Indeed, the alternatives to the Snoopers’ Charter approach that have been suggested by myself and many other opponents of the Snoopers’ Charter would if anything be more effective.

The Snoopers’ Charter is counterproductive

As noted above, the Snoopers’ Charter would not have been any help in preventing the tragedy at Woolwich – nor in pursuing or prosecuting the perpetrators and their co-conspirators. In fact, it might well be precisely the opposite, for at least two important reasons.

The first of these is that it has been a distraction, and a waste of time and resources. According to some accounts upwards of half a billion has already been spent on preparing the way for the bill – and a huge amount more is planned to be spent. The estimates of £1.8 billion put forward by the Home Office were condemned by the Parliamentary Committee examining the bill as speculative at best: the real cost would be likely to be far more. All that money, effort and time could have been spent on better, more intelligent and more effective methods – and if plans go ahead for the full-scale Snoopers’ Charter, as Theresa May and others are still proposing, even more time, effort, money and energy will be wasted in the future.

The second is that by pursuing this approach, the proponents of the Snoopers’ Charter have delayed the chance of getting some real, positive and effective powers to investigate and fight terrorism and so forth. RIPA – the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act that currently governs communications interception and related powers does need updating – but the overreach of those behind the Snoopers Charter meant that they didn’t get that update. They asked for too much – so got nothing at all. What’s more, if they continue to push for the full-scale version, the universal surveillance model, people like me will continue to resist, continue to do our best to delay and block movements towards this kind of thing.

People like me aren’t the enemies of law enforcement – the opposite…

It is often suggested – particularly by Theresa May – that people like me, people who do their best to block or stymie attempts to bring about universal internet surveillance, are somehow the enemies of law enforcement, or even that we have blood on our hands. With the tragic death of Drummer Lee Rigby it’s highly likely that similar suggestions, or at the very least similar hints will be made. Not only are such suggestions highly manipulative and in many ways very offensive, they’re also entirely inaccurate. We’re not – precisely the opposite. We’re very much the friends of law enforcement – and if our ideas were listened to a little more, rather than their being caricatured as somehow ‘anti-law enforcement’, that might be seen.

How can this be? Well, first of all, we’re pointing out genuine flaws in the way that the proposals have been put together. Amongst all the other things, the Snoopers’ Charter proposals won’t actually work – at least not in the way ‘working’ is being presented. They won’t prevent terrorism – or events like the Woolwich murder. They won’t make it easier to catch terrorists or criminals of the sort that perpetrate those kinds of atrocities. We already have as good tools to do that as we can have – because, sadly, whatever system you have, some people will slip through the net. Some atrocities will happen – and we need to be honest enough to admit it. The Snoopers’ Charter won’t stop that – indeed, it would be supremely ineffective at doing that. All it will do is catch innocents and incompetents – and restrict the civil liberties and crucial freedoms of the rest of us at the same time. The incompetents will be caught whatever happens – and the rest of us should have freedom, if our ‘free’ society is to mean anything.

Secondly, the kinds of proposals that those of us who oppose the Snoopers’ Charter have made would be more efficient and effective – particularly in terms of resources. Use targeted, intelligence based surveillance, not universal, unintelligent surveillance. That’s what could have worked better here: the people concerned had already been identified, so any intelligent, targeted system could have been applied to them.

Where do we go from here?

Woolwich should be a wake up call – but not a wake up call to tell us to go again for the Snoopers’ Charter. The opposite. It should wake people up to the need for a proper, intelligence based, targeted rather than universal surveillance. An updated RIPA that is more focussed rather than broader. Limit the powers that can be misused – but tighten and modernise those which are properly focused and have the checks and balances that are necessary. Look at this with intelligence – and not only do civil liberties benefit but the intelligence services could too.

The problem is, as I have blogged recently, it’s very easy to have a knee-jerk reaction and produce bad, inappropriate and ineffective legislation. Any attempt to revive the Snoopers’ Charter would be exactly that. We should avoid that at all costs.

12 thoughts on “Woolwich and the case against the Snoopers’ Charter!

  1. And as a suffix, if I may, the first test of whether a proposed replacement is acceptable should be whether it will mean storing, in a public place, a list of hundreds of women who have visited rape crisis websites.

    There is no security strong enough to justify keeping that list, and all of the reasons to want such a list are bad ones.

  2. One of the absurdities of the big data statistical approach to surveillance that the government is continuously pushing for, is that statistics itself is a tool that only works best for frequently occurring events. In rare freak events such as Woolwich, statistics is much less useful. So the only way big surveillance could be useful is, if you assume the majority need to be controlled. That is of course the case with marketers which is why big surveillance is now so popular with advertisers and corporations. So the only use governments might have for this type of statistical analysis surveillance (that might actually work in practice) is political manipulation. I can see why they would want that.

  3. Once again a thought provoking piece. Please explain how information collected in this fashion could EVER be guaranteed secure & private with the revolving door of politics allowing access to so many in perpetuity? Necessary data collection to thwart terroristic acts such as this week’s heinous events makes sense – blanket collection and retention of all private data does not. Has anyone followed the money? Thank you.

    1. No data is ever truly secure – and this data would be particularly vulnerable. It will be formatted and stored in a searchable form, and people will know it. It’s a real recipe for disaster – and won’t help with the real problem at all.

  4. It’s interesting how a security minister can admit that freak lone wolf events such as Woolwich (and now the prison guard situation) are very hard to detect in advance as those involved mostly act alone unpredictably and do not communicate electronically with any other parties, yet a few moments later will say we need more communications surveillance to prevent these kinds of events!

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