It is nearly one week since murderous Islamic extremists launched their three-day campaign of terror across Paris, striking at one of the core pillars of western democratic society: a free press exercising their fundamental right to freedom of speech. But before the victims of the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the kosher market siege have even been laid to rest, David Cameron and his government have started planning their own assault on the rights of the individual and the foundations of a free society.
Of course, David Cameron’s assault is couched in the gentle, persuasive diplomatic language of the politician. There will be no masked men clad in black, no sudden hail of gunfire and no hostages taken – unless you count the right to live our lives free from intrusive snooping from a government that believes it can keep us completely safe, if only it knows enough about us all.
The Guardian provides a good summary of the enhanced laws and powers that David Cameron and the security services want to take for themselves:
David Cameron appears to want to strengthen the laws that allow the security services to intercept communications so that no method or element of online communication is out of reach of the state, as long as they have a warrant personally signed by the home secretary. The security services complain that the growth of encryption of online data means there are already services available that are sold as guaranteeing privacy or are in some other way beyond the reach of the intelligence services.
It could mean that a new intercept law might outlaw services such as Snapchat, by which text, photos or video are shared for up to 10 seconds before they are deleted from the company’s servers. More than 700m photos and videos are shared each day using such services. It could also mean that companies that offer encrypted email services could be banned or required to hand over their encryption keys to the security services in specified circumstances such as terrorism or paedophile cases.
This would be bad enough – it would essentially revive the defunct Snooper’s Charter bill, that awful piece of legislation blocked by the Liberal Democrats, in one of their few useful actions of this Parliament. And the idea of the government actually outlawing various social media platforms is the type of behaviour we have come to expect from Middle-Eastern despots and authoritarian regimes teetering on the brink of collapse, not from a stable, modern western democracy. But there is worse still:
The prime minister also appears to want to future-proof any new measure. Traditionally the security services and the police have always had the authority to intercept and read any letter or listen in to any phone call as long as they have a warrant personally signed by the home secretary. Cameron’s comments suggest that he wants a blanket law that would cover not only existing forms of communication such as encrypted services or Snapchat-style services but also any that might develop into the future. This would amount to an extremely sweeping new power.
Two observations here. Firstly, one supposes the fact the Home Secretary will be required to sign off on surveillance warrants is intended as some form of reassurance. In reality, it is nothing of the kind. What politician, when faced with the gnawing fear that inaction might lead to loss of life and the finger of blame, would ever refuse their consent to any warrant presented by the security services? Such matters should properly rest with the judiciary, where an impartial judge is empowered to weigh the evidence and make an informed decision, free from government coercion.
Secondly, the idea of enacting future-proof legislation so broad in scope that it covers any possible future method of communication that mankind may yet invent is chilling in the extreme, and more than a little totalitarian in nature, seeking not just to control and oversee the present but the future, too. This is David Cameron trying to have his take and eat it, too. Not only does he want draconian new powers for the state, he wants them all given in a lump so that he does not need to trouble himself to come begging for more should the supposed need arise in future.
At the very least, if politicians and intelligence chiefs wish to be granted extra powers at the cost of our civil liberties, they should come before the public to explain how the existing laws and powers were inadequate to prevent the attacks in Paris which they are now exploiting to facilitate their power-grab.
To date, no one has offered any evidence that additional powers of digital surveillance (let alone more draconian policies on detaining, questioning or curfewing suspects, all of which may come soon) would have helped prevent the Paris attacks. Indeed, the evidence suggests that the attacks could have been thwarted if French intelligence had made better use of information they had already either collected or been given by partner agencies.
If the UK’s security services are also so inept that they cannot make effective use of the terabytes of data and sweeping powers already at their disposal, why should the British people grant them additional tools at the expense of our own privacy and freedom?
But this is all irrelevant – even the strictest of these measures, draconian and poisonous to a free society as they are, would be insufficient to greatly reduce the risk of another terrorist attack. As the journalist and civil liberties campaigner Glenn Greenwald rightly observed in remarks delivered shortly after the Canadian Parliament gun attack in Ottawa:
The mere existence of a successful attack is not evidence that government policy was flawed. The mere existence of a terrorist attack doesn’t show that the government should change its policy. You could have the most perfect government policy, the perfect calibration of privacy and security, or freedom and security, and still have terrorist attacks. You can not have a society in which absolute safety is the goal, it isn’t achievable and trying to achieve it will create so many worse harms than the failure to have it in the first place.
And the harms that would be inflicted in order to achieve absolute safety are the very same harms that David Cameron intends to inflict upon Britain in his panicked, servile submission to the demands of the national security and intelligence chiefs. The only way to achieve absolute safety is through absolute surveillance – and zero privacy. Stepping out onto a London street totally certain in the knowledge that you will come to no harm would require us to become North Korea.
The way to make ourselves safer from the threat of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism is not to massively increase the already awesome power of the state to monitor our lives and control our behaviour through draconian new legislation or intrusive technologies. The only way that we will ever really begin to feel safe – to finally lift the mental siege of fundamentalist terror that imprisons our thinking – is to work tirelessly to reduce the number of people who want to commit acts of mass terror in the first place.
How do we go about doing this? Two methods immediately present themselves:
Eradicate poverty with real urgency. The seeds of extremism and fundamentalism of any kind are quick to take root where there is extreme poverty, or where people feel disconnected and unable to participate in mainstream life because of inadequate means. Tackle poverty and work to avoid the ghettoisation of new Muslim immigrants with a real sense of urgency, and there will be less fertile ground from which the fundamentalists can recruit. This does not mean embracing every half-baked poverty reduction idea to waft from Ed Miliband’s soulless Labour Party – good ideas for dealing with poverty can come from left and right – but it does mean taking the problem seriously, which David Cameron’s government has pointedly failed to do.
Build a cohesive British society. At times, this blog has been a lone voice in the wilderness emphasising the importance of communicating and inculcating a shared set of common British values by which we can all live and coexist together, regardless of our ethnic origin, religion or any other distinguishing factor. A kaleidoscopic Britain is only a good thing if, at our deepest level, we understand that we are all part of the same society and have that common bond with one another. As few politicians other than Nigel Farage dared to point out last week, we do not currently live in such a harmonious multicultural society.
Unfortunately, all the evidence suggests that we are a long way from achieving this latter goal. From the Trojan Horse scandal in Birmingham, where local schools were found by OFSTED to have been compromised by incoming governors and staff carrying with them an agenda to corrupt the minds of young children with a limited education based on extremist Islamic principles, to the black flag that flew in sympathy with ISIS from the gates of a London housing estate, many nominally British people are attempting to wall themselves off from the rest of society and live in ideologically pure communes, holding fidelity to Islam above loyalty to our country.
Tackling this will not be easy – there is no draconian law that can force people to integrate, even if such coercive measures were desirable. Rather, change must come from within and without. Followers of moderate Islam must take up the burden of demonstrating to their more conservative friends, neighbours and colleagues that no harm will come from engaging with modern Britain – that we do not bite. And in turn, we must provide a more welcoming face encouraging those who have their doubts that it is safe to engage in our national life, through sports, arts, charitable activities and community events. There is no one legislative solution, no magic wand – it will take a million small decisions in a million hearts and minds to make the crucial difference.
David Cameron’s government, unfortunately is incapable of such nuance, preferring to see each individual harbouring potentially extremist thoughts as a nut which can only be cracked by the authoritarian sledgehammer of the surveillance state. Our privacy already been undermined by forms of electronic surveillance that were never sanctioned and about which we would never have known but for brave whistleblowers and campaigners, but there is more. Our government’s only apparent solution to stop young minds from turning to extremism is an official, state-sponsored citizen re-education programme called Prevent.
Prevent is, laughably, delivered through the NHS, which has now taken on the task of defeating global terrorism in addition to the dull work of providing government healthcare to Britons. Even under a Conservative-led government and a Prime Minister who claims to believe in individual responsibility and empowering local communities, we have somehow developed a counter-extremism strategy that is based on top-down social engineering, observation and correction from Big Government.
But ultimately, no power of surveillance or Big Brother coercion will ever be sufficient for our leaders to promise the British people that we are safe from the threat of fundamentalist Islamic terrorism. On our present course, we would be lucky if the needle on the security threat level scale ever dips below “severe”. You could build a British North Korea in England’s green and pleasant land, and still the odd lone wolf will slip through the net to make headlines around the world as they seek their heavenly reward for creating hell on Earth.
We are approaching the problem from the wrong end.
Somebody needs to tell David Cameron, and jolt the Prime Minister out of his blind panic, before he does any more damage.