Yesterday, David Cameron told the House of Commons Select Committee on National Security Strategy that he accepted that he and his government had thus far failed to make the case for the extraordinarily invasive government surveillance practices which have been secretly going on beyond the view of the public and our elected MPs, and that he and his ministers needed to do a better job selling the benefits of an intrusive, omniscient government to the British public.
The Guardian reported at the time:
Discussing the communications legislation, Cameron said: “Over time we are going to have to modernise the legislative framework and practice when it comes to dealing with communications data. It is a politically contentious topic. I am not sure we are going to make progress on it in the coming months in terms of legislation, but there may be things short of legislation that we could do.
“I do think politicians, police chiefs, the intelligence services have got a role in explaining what this is all about. Snowden inevitably raises questions about ‘who has access to my data and why’.
“But I am absolutely convinced that proper rules for communication data collection are essential. I do not think we have got across to people yet the absolute basis of this.
“In most of the serious crimes, such as child abduction, comms data – who called who when and where was the phone at the time, not the content of the call – the comms data is absolutely vital.”
It may well be the case that the majority of the most serious crimes are indeed solved by the analysis of telephony metadata by law enforcement agencies. But David Cameron is making an entirely separate argument here. No one is proposing that the police and other law enforcement agencies should be denied access to telephone and other digital records (which are already maintained by the telecoms companies for the purposes of billing) when investigating these crimes, because in these scenarios there will almost always be a suspect in custody or at large who has created reasonable suspicion and is then the target of the search.
What GCHQ and the NSA have been doing, on the other hand, is nothing to do with this standard law enforcement practice of searching the possessions and digital footprints of an active suspect. Rather, they have been collecting reams of metadata (and more) on people who are under no suspicion of doing anything at all, in secret and without permission, to dip in and out of at their leisure. By equating these two entirely different practices, Cameron is trying to make it sound as though people who value and speak out in defence of civil liberties are somehow extremists or absolutists who want to deny basic crimefighting tools to the police. This is clearly not so.
The false equivalence is made fully apparent in this next quote from Cameron:
He continued: “I love watching crime drama on the television, as I should probably stop telling people. There is hardly a crime drama that is not solved without using the data of a mobile communications device. If we don’t modernise the practice and the law over time we will have the communications data to solve these horrible crimes on a shrinking proportion of the total use of the devices.
The Prime Minister is basically saying that because telecoms companies and devices themselves only hold the most recent usage data, it is only through exercising powers of unlimited and total surveillance that the government can maintain a complete picture of a person’s communications, for use should they ever happen to become a suspect in a crime.
Note also that we are no longer even talking about terrorism, but just “horrible crimes”, among which the Prime Minister includes child abduction and a mysterious category of offence called “comms data”. It was bad enough when a government minister could mumble something inane involving the word “terrorism” to justify gaining complete access to a person’s communications and digital life, but through a couple of seemingly-innocuous turns of phrase it seems that David Cameron now wants to broaden the use of pre-emptive digital searches to stop any and all illegal activity. And since the government has no idea who may or may not be harbouring whims of child abduction or committing a ghastly act of “comms data”, the logical inference is that he believes that the security services are perfectly entitled to collect and monitor all of our telecommunications metadata now and forevermore, on the offchance that we do decide to commit one of these crimes.
Park your outrage for a moment, because the most incredible thing of all is not that all of this has apparently been occurring with regularity – that is, collection and use of the telephony metadata of British citizens, not just for counterterrorism and national security purposes but, in Cameron’s own words, also ostensibly to prevent child abduction and any number of other nominated crimes – but that in examining the actions and conduct of his government and himself, the only thing he can find to beat himself up about is the fact that he did not do a sufficiently vigorous job selling this flagrant intrusion of government into personal privacy to the British public.
Where is the oversight? Where is the outrage?