Uncivil Liberties: The Coalition's Surveillance Chaos

Loz Kaye's picture

It has been a  week of chaos for Britain's government on civil liberties. Theresa May signaling the intention to bring in legislation to allow law enforcement agencies to check email, web, social media and gaming forum traffic unleashed a wave of protest. It also unleashed contradiction in the government parties. The Conservatives were quick to exploit the "being tough on crime" angle in the Sun. LibDem president Tim Farron was fielded to promise to shoot down the proposals Nick Clegg was set up to defend just a few short days before.

We have had leaks, briefings, interviews, spin and letters. Lots of letters. The whole debacle has been capped with Home Office and the Prime Minister's websites being DDoSed by Anonymous. 

The government has not even been able to explain precisely what it is trying to achieve. Is it crime prevention, terrorist detection or child protection? All we have been presented with is the sense of us being "under threat" in the most generalised of terms. The most distasteful part of this whole saga has been the dragging up of irrelevant, high profile, specific cases by the Home Secretary.

One of the areas that the government was keen to trumpet in the coalition agreement was a commitment to civil rights. Little wonder, then, that the idea of mass surveillance has alarmed many activists; including in the Liberal Democrats. The group letter from Councillor Eakins to the party President pulls no punches calling for the blocking of these "illiberal proposals". 

Many of us who care about civil liberties are asking - where have you been? It has been common knowledge that the coalition was planning to revive a version of Labour's controversial CCDP snooping proposals since February of this year. Internet freedom lobbyists the Open Rights Group already highlighted the dangers, Executive Director Jim Killock branding the plans "just as intrusive and offensive" as the original they seek to emulate.

The point is, what is the intent of the government, rather than the hopes of the grassroots? It has been difficult to detect a coherent line through the week's shifting positions. But it would seem to be this - any legislation would just be a modernising of the current situation and would not result in any kind of "national database", which the Conservatives and LibDems rightly opposed in 2009. 

Nick Clegg's justification of the plans, certainly, was couched in a language suggesting that we are getting an upgrade - "All we are doing is updating the rules which currently apply to mobile telephone calls to allow the police and security services to go after terrorists and serious criminals and updating that to apply to technology like Skype." 

However, it is disingenuous to make that comparison as it is not like with like. As Evgeny Morozov pointed out in the Financial Times, the only straightforward way to do this is by creating "back doors" in services. This means your future communications would come with in-built snooping facilities. Far from protecting citizens, it will make us more vulnerable from all sorts of directions. Surely, we should have learnt the potential dangers after the ongoing News of the World scandal?

The government has tried to point at what won't happen as a way of distracting from what will, by saying that content will not be monitored without a warrant. But this ignores the very different nature of online communication. Monitoring website traffic gives far more information than, for example, just knowing who has rung whom. To put it bluntly, it is the monitoring of content in the way most people would understand it.

More generally, this is the point that we have been making in the Pirate Party - once you agree a surrender of civil liberties, however small, it can lead to further significant problems down the line. "We accept X as a society so we must accept Y" is never a valid argument.

From the damage limitation coming out of LibDem central it was clear that the idea of the the national database was a real sticking point. Little wonder, as opposition to ID cards was such a rallying cry. Now we have been promised that there will be no centralisation of this information. But if the logging of all online communications in a potentially immediately accessible way is as vital for national security as the Home Secretary claims, then it is clear that blanket surveillance will be used as default. A national database by another name. And, let's face it, the privatisation of this task will hardly reassure voters.

Wherever the responsibility for a great UK data harvest is placed, we, the tax payers, will foot the bill. And it will be a considerable bill at that; reckoned to be in region of 2 billion pounds. The 100 million pledged in the budget to upgrade our digital infrastructure all of a sudden looks rather paltry. The money to police our Internet would easily dwarf new money to enhance it. 

Besides, we have already had concrete examples of Internet surveillance here in the UK this year. The Pirate Party highlighted the case of R'n'B blog "RnBxclusive" being taken down by the serious crimes squad SOCA. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the fraud accusation, the worrying thing was the page put up claiming that anyone visiting would have their IP address logged - all visitors were told that they could be traced. The stated aim was not to catch terrorists or "pædos", but to help emerging artists. This contradicts the soothing reassurances we have had that only the "really bad guys" will be targeted by web tracking. Where were the much discussed safeguards here? If SOCA were indeed logging whoever visited the site, they now have an excellent database of journalists and tech enthusiasts.

Granted, this is not the blanket surveillance that groups like Big Brother Watch fear. But clearly it crosses Councillor Eakins' red line of a named and specific warrant. Perhaps the LibDems and Conservatives didn't speak out about RnBxclusive as it was seen as too "piratey" or too risky a media strategy. Or maybe they simply are not paying attention. But what we should expect from our elected representatives is that they act in our defense not just when it is expedient, but when it is right.

You don't need to be an an Anonymous "hacktivist" to think that the coalition has repeatedly dropped the ball on civil liberties. If Nick Clegg really defers to Shami Chakrabarti as he said, why is Chris Tappin in a US cell? Why is the principle of freedom of information being undermined? Why is equal access to justice being threated by changes to legal aid? Why was an extension of secret trial, sorry, closed procedure even being considered?

The public at large are no doubt confused after a week like this. They are certainly angry, from the Anon operations to thousands signing the latest Avaaz petition. It is encouraging that opinion seems to be for preserving our freedoms, and that people haven't fallen for scare tactics. 

But the letter from this week that could well be the most important was from the people that actually call the shots in this case - Theresa May and Ken Clarke. They remained insistent that the proposal is "to require internet companies collect and store certain information, like who an individual has contacted and when" claiming that the internet could become "an unpoliced space".

Make no mistake, surveillance plans have not gone away.

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