Surveillance – do MPs really know what they’re voting for?

By Neal Lawson and Andrew Noakes

We are losing our rights, our freedoms and a Parliament that acts with our consent.  The mix is toxic.

Despite what we’ve been told, the emergency surveillance law being railroaded through Parliament does make substantive changes to surveillance practices. The government claims provisions allowing for the bulk collection of communications data, such as who we phone, for how long, and where from, are nothing new. But according to respected legal expert David Allen Green, the bill contains some entirely new measures.

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These additions include compelling non-UK telecommunications providers to hand over their customers’ data, and expanding the definition of “telecommunications service” so that data from services like Gmail and Hotmail can be collected and accessed. It might even be interpreted to include social media sites like Facebook.

These changes have nothing to do with the European Court of Justice judgement which has prompted this new legislation. They do not continue practices that were already provided for in the now defunct EU directive. Though the government says they are simply “clarifications”, they are completely new.

All this has to make us further question the wisdom of rushing through this piece of legislation in such haste. MPs have had a matter of days to scrutinise this bill before having to vote on it.

Following the Snowden revelations about GCHQ’s mass surveillance practices, we’ve been faced with fundamental questions about how to balance privacy and security in the internet age. This issue is highly complex on both the technical and ethical levels. What we need is a proper public debate and lengthy parliamentary scrutiny accompanying any legislation. What we appear to have got is the opposite – a rushed process without any public consultation, debate, or serious parliamentary scrutiny. All three main parties look like they have done a deal behind closed doors. It’s bad morally, politically and electorally.

The result, of course, is not only that public confidence in the security services and the powers they use will be severely undermined, but that sloppy drafting and slight-of-hand will allow something billed as just a continuation of the status quo to be used as a vehicle for the expansion of surveillance powers. David Allen Green’s preliminary analysis certainly suggests this is the case. What else is lurking in the text of this bill? It’s as if Snowden and Wikileaks never happened – business as usual.

Labour has forced a few concessions from the government on the bill. The sunset clause, the privacy board, and a provision to stop spying for purely economic reasons are all welcome. There is no doubt that Ed Miliband wants to act responsibly and strike the right balance between security and privacy. But the fear of not being perceived as strong on terrorism may also be in play. Anything driven by this fear risks diminishing the freedoms we’re ultimately trying to protect.

There are deeper questions about mass data surveillance that need to be answered. Can the security services and police be trusted not to misuse such sweeping powers, especially given their history of targeting benign activism organisations, the unions, and even people like Doreen Lawrence? Is mass surveillance even effective as a counter-terrorism tool? The Quilliam Foundation, an anti-extremism think-tank, says it will only help fuel terrorism. These issues need to be addressed as part of a proper debate, not buried amidst “emergency” legislation.

This debate is especially important for Labour. In the minds of many voters, we’re still the party of ID cards and 90-day detention. We’re still not trusted to responsibly balance privacy and security.

British society is more individualistic than ever. There is an entire younger generation who feel no identification with the statist left-wing politics of the past and who are much more liberal in their outlook. And as people increasingly distrust the state, they also increasingly care about their privacy. A recent poll revealed 88% of the public believe it’s important to maintain the privacy of their phone records – the very thing the security services want to harvest with this bill.

If Labour is to win the trust and support of these people, we have to avoid any impression of being on the wrong side of this debate. Even in crude electoral terms – is this the way to hang on to crucial Lib Dem switchers?

We think MPs need more time to consider, understand, and scrutinise this bill. More importantly we think the public has the right to debate what is in their interest when it comes to surveillance and the state.  We believe there should be a proper debate about how we balance privacy and security in the age of big data and globalised terrorism, and that Labour should lead it.

Neal Lawson is Chair of Compass. Andrew Noakes is Chair of the Labour Campaign for Human Rights

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