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Thursday, November 05, 2015

Does the surveillance bill poses a threat to the state?

Over at the Guardian website Simon Jenkins has an interesting perspective on the Tory Government's surveillance bill. He says that the fact that the bill seeks to “widen the access of police and security services” to personal electronic data is odd since, as Snowden revealed, they have enjoyed such access for years.

However, as he says the issue, which the security lobby never addresses, is where should be the boundaries of such intrusion and who should “monitor the monitors”:

Individuals in a free society have a right to assume their privacy means something, and that government and the law will protect them against “unwarranted surveillance” by third parties, including the state. Confidentiality in human relations is integral to personal freedom.

The job of ministers is to guard that integrity against the always incremental demands of the police and security services. One reason is that in the past those services have simply disregarded oversight, whether in letter or in spirit. Ministers have become lobbyists for this disregard. I am not aware of any recent minister standing up to the bullying of Big Security, as ministers (such as William Whitelaw) certainly did in the past.

However, the question that needs to be asked is how secure is the information that the state harvests on us? Is our privacy at threat not just from the spooks, but from those within government who might allow others to have access to it?

Not a week passes without news of some supposedly secure data store breaking down. NHS patient data leaked, police crime data leaked, TalkTalk, British Gas and Marks & Spencer customer details all leaked. Adultery agencies are hacked. Communications between lawyers and clients are hacked. In 2009, defence ministry vetting details of RAF officers were leaked. The police have reportedly hacked into journalists’ sources 600 times. If the government can hack citizens' records, citizens can hack them too, and hack what is hacked. E-government is not security but anarchy.

The real damage revealed by WikiLeaks and Snowden lay not so much in their content as in the fact that it could so easily be revealed by disloyal staff. When thousands of people become privy to other people’s secrets, those secrets become assets. In Snowden’s case it was moral outrage, not treachery or profit, which led him to blow his whistle. The two million people privy to the WikiLeaks material might not all be so high-minded.

The only secure conclusion is that nothing digital is secure, certainly nothing in the realm of government. That is why any state override of encryption could ultimately prove as dangerous to the state as to individual liberty. Do we really want the police, not just spies, to amass information on every citizen’s browser record? The fell cry of the dictator, that “the innocent have nothing to fear”, is already being heard by government apologists. It has no place in a liberal democracy.

All in all this Bill could open up a huge can of worms.
Indeed. The most shocking thing about both the Snowden and Manning revelations is how much access personnel quite low down in the hierarchy had to an enormous range of classified data. I am not confident that UK agencies are more responsible. "Need to know" limits should be written in to the legislation.

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