When the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act was passed with undue haste this summer, the one ‘saving grace’ promised to us by the Liberal Democrats, hitherto guardians of our civil liberties and killers of the Snoopers’ Charter, was the ‘sunset clause’ of December 2016, and the promise of careful and considered review of powers before then.
That careful and considered review – or rather several careful and considered reviews – began. Specifically, the Parliament Intelligence and Security Committee continued the review that it had begun before the hasty passing of DRIP, while the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation began his own consultation. Both these reviews do seem to have been both careful and considered – I made submissions to both of them, and was invited to a highly illuminating ’round table’ session by the ISC, as well as receiving a fast and clear response by the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation that showed he had read and understood what I said. In both cases, the feeling I was left with was one of cautious optimism. Those of us advocating a more privacy-friendly, less invasive approach were being listened to, or so it seemed….
…but at the same time, something very different seems to have been happening. There have been a series of speeches by important people that seem to be working directly against that careful, considered approach. The incoming head of GCHQ made a speech that was remarkably aggressive – effectively calling Google and Facebook tools for terrorists. The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police followed that with what amounted to an anti-privacy tirade, in particular condemning the use of encryption, and saying that the net had become a ‘safe-haven for terrorists and paedophiles’. Both seemed to be trying to suggest that the social media was an untamed wilderness that needed to be reined in – and at the same time seemed to want to inspire fear of the ‘deep, dark web’. The Culture Secretary, Sajid Javid, followed that with a speech suggesting that Article 8 – the right to a private life – had gone too far, and again invoking the threat of terrorists and paedophiles.
…and then, yesterday, Theresa May announced more powers for the police – technical powers, crucial, she said, for the fight against terror. Technical, and yet not discussed with the Internet Service Providers Association, or, seemingly, with those few MPs (such as Julian Huppert) who actually understand the internet, at least to some degree.
…and all this, at the same time as the reviews are taking place. It has the feeling of a drip, drip, dripping, trying to build up a stronger ‘anti internet freedom’ atmosphere. ‘The internet is something to be scared of, full of paedophiles, terrorists and extremists’ so needs to be reined in. Theresa May openly admits she wants to bring back the Snoopers’ Charter – despite its defeat the last time around – so she’s trying to lay the foundations for its return. Working on our resistance. Wearing us down. Trying, it seems, to make sure that the careful, considered review is anything but careful and considered – because the invocation of terrorists and paedophiles makes it impossible to be careful and considered. If you aren’t in favour of these obviously sensible measures, you’re on the side of the extremists, of the terrorists, of the paedophiles. Today, whilst debating the subject on Twitter, I was effectively told that I would have blood on my hands if I opposed the extension of powers.
We should do our very best to resist this. The review must be careful and considered – because there are significant and important issues at stake. Privacy matters – as do all the rights and needs that it supports, from freedom of expression to freedom of assembly and association. Civil liberties like these need privacy – because without that privacy there is a distinct and direct chill. Those of us who suggest that surveillance has gone too far can point to a number of recent revelations – that communications between journalists and their sources, between lawyers and their clients, between prisoners and their MPs, have all been compromised. This matters – and needs to be taken seriously.
On the other hand security also matters – and none of those who I know as privacy advocates deny this, despite what some of our opponents might suggest. We know that it matters – and want to have a sensible, rational, level-headed review of the whole system. We don’t expect our privacy needs to override security – but we do expect that some kind of a balance can be found. That needs an atmosphere without the kind of hyperbole that has been produced in the last few weeks. Can we find that? It does not seem very hopeful at the moment, particularly with a general election looming at the two major parties seemingly competing to see who can be ‘tougher’. I hope we can be equally tough – but tough in terms of fighting for our rights. If we’re not, then we’ll have a new Snoopers’ Charter before we’re even aware what is happening.