Stand firm against terror—and the latest snooping wheezeby Martha Spurrier / April 7, 2017 / Leave a comment
The attack on parliament was not only sad but also senseless. Violence sows fear, division and intolerance. It will do so all the more effectively if it is talked up as being part of some general threat hanging over day-to-day life in this country, rather than a mercifully rare but terrible crime.
Hearteningly, our leaders did not immediately elevate this into an existential threat that might necessitate sacrificing core values. Theresa May powerfully stated that free speech, liberty, human rights and the rule of law would prevail. But since 9/11, the post-attack pattern has been for politicians to start by speaking up bravely for democratic values, before—only a little later—cooking up crude policies. And, sure enough, a few days after the homilies to democratic values, the Home Secretary was demanding an end to encryption on social media sites such as WhatsApp—an eye-catching move designed to show that she is doing something. But it’s an idea that’s unworkable in practice, exposes all of our data to hackers and hostile spies and risks driving extremists into obscure corners of the dark web.
The attacker Khalid Masood may have posted on WhatsApp, but when he was already on watchlists, and when furthermore the provisional view from the police is that he acted in isolation, it’s not at all clear how extra powers to pry could have prevented the tragedy.
We should always be suspicious of policy by catchphrase in such circumstances. When “the innocent have nothing to fear” is used to support suspicionless surveillance, alarm bells ring. If there’s one big lie that characterises the post-9/11 response to terrorism, it’s the false dichotomy of “liberty vs security”—the insistence that we cannot be both safe and free. Tony Blair exploited fear to try to detain suspects for 90 days without charge—the kind of unchecked power that belongs in authoritarian regimes, not Westminster Palace. Control orders put people who hadn’t been charged with any crime under house arrest for 16 hours a day, and the coalition’s secret courts surrendered all the traditional guarantees of open justice.
More recently, the government was pushing a counter-extremism law based on chillingly vague definitions of “extreme” and “British values,” even as they sold that proudest of British values—free speech—down the river. May now seems to have shelved these plans on lawyers’ advice, under pressure from Liberty and others. But that these proposals were ever on the table is disturbing.
Within hours of the Westminster attack, an anonymous “senior government source” was pointing the Sun to Liberty’s legal challenge to the Investigatory Powers Act (IPA), which—the source said—could leave our spies “blind.”
“More powers for spies” has now become another automatic demand after every attack, only this time that call is being made even though it is only months since this legislation licensed the most invasive surveillance regime of any democracy in history—and not just for suspects, but for everybody. The IPA slipped through last year, a year that—not coincidentally—was marked by much distracting tumult and a shambolic opposition. The Act undermines every value that May hailed in her post-attack statement—free speech, free press, protest rights, fair trials.
How? It lets the state access records of our emails, texts, calls and web browsing: every site we visit, every app we open, the software we download. Online searches that might reveal things about one’s health, sexuality, religious or political leanings, addictions or proclivity for—say—online poker or soft porn. Hundreds of public bodies can now access all this, and every experience with leaky databases suggests that they will not all be trusted to keep this information protected 100 per cent of the time. If police wanted to search your house, they’d need a warrant—but now the state can mine your digital soul, even if you are suspected of nothing, without any sign-off from a judge. No one is exempt—not lawyers speaking to clients, journalists to sources or even doctors to patients. Confidentiality doesn’t exist anymore.
All this is in the name of security—except these powers actually make us less safe. Aside from the obvious cyber-security risks of safely storing all this sensitive information in the age of criminal hacking, harvesting millions of innocent people’s data does little to help the authorities hunt down those rare criminals who would do us harm—instead of helping them find the needle, it adds hay to the bewildering stack. While legislating, the government was repeatedly asked to provide evidence to show mass surveillance was necessary to security, and it never did.
Now is the time to hold our representatives to the values we are lucky enough to have. If our rights are not protected—and if we don’t do everything we can to take back those we’ve already lost—fear and terror win.