FREEDOM is a precious commodity, to be handed down from generation to generation with the utmost care. As such, lawmakers should tread cautiously before introducing legislation that, while well-meaning today, may be used very differently in future. From the family put under surveillance because of an issue with a school catchment area, to Associated Press journalists now wondering how many of their sources have been compromised by the US Department of Justice, the warnings are clear.
Unfortunately, while David Cameron struck the right tone after the tragic murder of drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich last week – by urging against knee-jerk reactions – some of his parliamentary colleagues have not shown such restraint. Before drummer Rigby’s family was even informed of his death, former home secretary Lord Reid had taken to the airwaves to call for the revival of communications data legislation – the so-called snoopers’ charter.
The Communications Data Bill was shelved earlier this year after public and political opposition. It would have given police and security services access, without warrant, to details of all online communications in the UK. Calls for its revival are opportunistic, neglecting the facts, technical expertise and the existing legal framework. Worse, they treat a tragedy as an opportunity to score political points. And it is no surprise that many of its supporters once also called for 90 day detention without trial, and for people never convicted of any crime to be put on the DNA database.
There is not a shortage of existing powers to keep suspected terrorists under surveillance. Under Part Two of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, the security services and police already have the power to find out who a suspected terrorist is talking to. How they do this – from covert human intelligence sources or covert surveillance, to directed surveillance or intercept – is up to them.
As we and many others have previously argued, the challenge is dealing with the volume of data. Metropolitan police chief Bernard Hogan-Howe recently told the Home Affairs Select Committee that police technology “is more green-screen than it is iPad... and it does not seem to catch criminals.” If Rigby’s killers were “on the radar”, it is surely a question of prioritising surveillance, not of needing more surveillance of everyone in the UK. This is the dangerous premise behind the Communications Data Bill, and is one that would divert billions of pounds away from focused surveillance operations to pay for the storage of data on all our internet use.
In fact, if there is one legal change that could be made to assist the security services, it would be to lift the ban on intercept evidence being used as evidence in court.
It would be wrong to rush to judgement on such critical issues as privacy and freedom, and even worse to do so for political ends. It is essential that, in the coming weeks, calmer heads prevail and the values and freedoms that make this country strong are not lost in a wave of political hysteria.
Emma Carr is deputy director of Big Brother Watch.