The Coalition has not exactly covered itself in glory through its proposal to allow GCHQ to monitor all email, Skype and social media conversations in realtime. Under the proposed legislation, security officials will be able to know who is sending a message and who is receiving it, and the time the message was sent, though the government insists that they will not be able to access the content of these messages.
Civil liberties campaigners are unlikely to be convinced by such assurances, nor are they liked to be soothed by Nick Clegg’s pledge that ‘safeguards’ will be introduced to prevent such data from being abused. The negative publicity the bill has already attracted raises the question of why it has been introduced at all. According to a Home Office spokesman
‘It is vital that police and security services are able to obtain communications data in certain circumstances to investigate serious crime and terrorism and to protect the public.’
But the police and security agencies already have the power to do this for specific cases when they believe such data is necessary – subject to a warrant and judicial oversight. And the Home Office’s own insistence that such information would be required in ‘certain circumstances’ raises the question of why it is necessary to accumulate such a vast quantity of general information on anybody and everybody, all the time.
According to a 2008 survey, three million emails are sent every day and two million every minute. Even if we take the Home Office’s claims seriously, it is difficult to see how trawling through this volume of information could contribute anything useful to crime or terrorism prevention.
On the contrary, the process of monitoring and managing lists of billions and trillions of names and dates is likely to consume and absorb resources that would be better directed toward targeted law enforcement or counter-terrorism efforts, when there was real case for suspicion.
The underlying assumptions behind the proposed legislation however, are a) that everybody is – or at least might be, suspicious, and b) that the state has the right to observe all its citizens without them being aware of it.
The Coalition’s ‘snooping charter’ is not simply the result of an overzealous desire to ‘protect the public.’ This week a report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights criticized the government’s proposal to increase the use of closed material procedures (CMPs) in civil proceedings involving intelligence information as ‘inherently unfair’.
As the government itself admits, both the secret Star Chamber-style courts and Theresa May’s email surveillance proposal emanate from the intelligence services, and these two pieces of legislation are another indication of a more general willingness on the part of democratic governments to sacrifice engage in the most illiberal and undemocratic politics in the name of national security.
These tendencies have been particularly striking in the United States as a consequence of the September 11 attacks. There is a clear trajectory from the post 9/11 PATRIOT Act, through the expansion of warrantless surveillance and the expansion of National Security Agency’s vast domestic and foreign data trawling programmes, and last year’s enactment by the Obama administration’s National Defence Authorisation Act, which permits the indefinite detention without trial of US and foreign citizens.
In the United States, the new post-9/11 era of endless war has become a catalyst and a pretext for a transformation of the relationship between the state and the citizenry, with the balance of power shifting decisively towards the former. On one level, this accelerated drift toward secrecy and surveillance is a consequence of a paranoid official mindset which lives in constant anticipation of the next terrorist-borne catastrophe.
Such expectations have inclined even liberal governments to reject a risk-managed approach to security, in which certain threats are tolerated or accepted as the inevitable corollary of a free society, and adopt instead an often vaguely-defined and overarching concept of national security with an authoritarian ‘strong state’ as its core component.
These developments are not only a consequence of terrorism, even if counterterrorism and the imperative of ‘saving lives’ are invariably presented as a justification for them. In the UK, as in the US, there has been a constant slippage between terrorism, law enforcement and other activities whose relation to national security is tenuous at best.
In 2010 Kent police announced plans to deploy unmanned drones from Afghanistan in domestic surveillance programmes that would include the London Olympics, illegal immigrants, and ‘drivers, campaigners, agricultural thieves and fly-tippers.‘
The government’s Justice and Security Green Paper reveals a similar overlap between ‘national security’ concerns regarding intelligence information, and other activities where secret trials might also apply, such as inquests involving British military personnel.
Proponents of such measures may argue that they are only limited and exceptional responses to exceptional threats, but exceptions can easily become the norm, and create a dynamic in which power shifts remorselessly away from the public towards the most unaccountable elements within the state apparatus.
That process is already underway, and must be stopped. Governments often insist that terrorists wish to destroy our ‘values’ and ‘way of life’.
But the UK government’s latest illiberal proposals are further evidence of a cult of national security that threatens to inflict more longterm damage on democracy and the notion of a free society than any terrorist bombs ever could.