Sabir on Security: A government that listens! (to your phone calls)
New in Ceasefire, Sabir on Security - Posted on Friday, October 29, 2010 22:22 - 4 Comments
By Rizwaan Sabir
“We will end the storage of internet and email records without good reason”
(Coalition Government agreement ), Summer 2010
“[We will] Introduce a programme to preserve the ability of the security, intelligence and law enforcement agencies to obtain communication data and to intercept communications…”
(The Strategic Defence & Security Review ), Autumn 2010
In the past few weeks, whilst the press, and the population at large, have been busy trying to get a sense of the colossal scale of the coalition’s cuts, the government has been busy reintroducing the very type of assaults on people’s liberties that they’d been decrying in opposition. We had thought these attacks on our privacy had gone away for good after the defeat of the New Labour project. We thought wrong.
The coalition’s backdoor assault comes in the form of the ‘Interception Modernisation Programme’ (IMP), which aims to collate, and store, every email and text message sent or received, every webpage that is visited and every phone call that is made in the UK. Records of all this are now to be kept on a centralised database that the police, security services, intelligence services and GCHQ will have access to.
This proposal is a spectacular U-turn on the coalition government’s initial grandiose claims that it intends to roll back the reach and scope of New Labour’s surveillance state, including those far ranging powers introduced under the pretext of “fighting terrorism”. It now seems that the coalition partners have promptly forgotten their campaign ‘promise’ and will be doing what freshly-elected ‘democratic’ governments in the UK do best: whatever it is they want to do.
Let’s start with the obvious, the IMP is a clear violation of human rights laws, especially privacy laws, which categorically state that everyone has a right to a private and family life and to privacy of correspondence.
Moreover, the IMP does very little to enhance the UK’s national-security, especially when you factor in its projected cost – £12 billion; far too much at a time when austerity measures are being imposed on a stunned population and savage public spending cuts are the new religion.
The pretext of “counter-terrorism” is an interesting one, not only because the new team is willing to sacrifice almost all of our rights and freedoms for the purpose of confronting some alleged perpetual, lethal terrorist threat, but also because ‘fighting terrorism’ has always been a mere excuse to lower the bar for what becomes acceptable conduct for the police and security apparatus (for example, torture and complicity in torture).
Of course, the Spooks argue that there is robust ministerial, parliamentary and judicial oversight to ensure their agents do not abuse their powers, but that’s the theory. In reality, the daily activities of the security services and GCHQ are largely secret and unaccounted for. An example would be the amount of time it has taken for allegations against the secret service of complicity in torture abroad to gain judicial momentum. The police, on the other hand, are more unlucky when it comes to being ‘caught’ abusing their powers, but even when officers are caught, they still largely go unpunished for their actions. Let us all never forget the killing of Ian Tomlinson, a sad, shameful, but eloquent example of an entire culture of impunity.
Have no illusions: programmes such as the ‘Interception Modernisation Programme’ do nothing more than increase the power of institutions that are largely unaccountable already, for no apparent reason than to control and encroach upon the private lives of the public. More troublingly, they authorise the State to use (and abuse) the vast volumes of information stored on innocent people for reasons that will never be disclosed to them.
It is common knowledge that the powers which have so far been introduced for the purpose of counter-terrorism have done little to actually counter the threat of terrorism, but have been very effective in curtailing our collective rights of protest, free speech, and privacy.
If you combine this paradox with the seemingly endemic incompetence of civil servants, officers and bureaucrats over the recent past, including an astonishing propensity to illegally (mis)handle and (mis)store sensitive and private information, the centralised database seems to be a perfect recipe for disaster.
Arguably, granting law-enforcement agencies and the security-apparatus adequate powers to do their actual ‘job’ of protecting the public well is an important perquisite for the State’s ability to confront genuine threats to national security. However, introducing sweeping, Orwellian-like powers that are obsessed with collecting large swaths of our private data, with a zeal worthy of the Stasi, has no place in any nation with a claim to “civilised” status.
The Interception Modernisation Programme is expensive, unnecessary and disproportionate. It damages our communities, does little to protect us from terrorism and will increase rather than reduce the risk of threats: It must be scrapped, now.
Rizwaan Sabir is a human rights activist and doctoral researcher at the University of Strathclyde. He is researching the role of Islam in British and Scottish government policy, with a special focus on counter-terrorism. In May 2008 he was detained for six days as a suspected member of al-Qaida for being in possession of primary research literature. He was released without charge. His column on counter-terrorism and security appears every other Friday.
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