Monday, 2 April 2012

Coalition falls in love with snooping: Disappointing but not surprising

I'm roused, just about, from my recent gloom-laden inactivity by the news, as depressing as it is ultimately unsurprising, that the government intends to introduce new snooping powers on us all.  When the news broke yesterday a few people naively hoped that it might be an April Fool.  But of course it wasn't.  National security is no joking matter.

This Coalition government isn't like New Labour, many of whose ministers gave the strong impression that they actively enjoyed hacking away at civil liberties.  The plans may have been none-too-subtly leaked, but ministers haven't exactly been all over the airwaves defending the scheme.  They could, presumably, have made our flesh creep with tales of what criminals, terrorists and paedophiles are getting up to and why they need to be stopped.  Why these new powers are really, really necessary.  But you can tell their hearts aren't really in it.

Both Lib Dems and Tories opposed these ideas when in Opposition, so effectively that the government was forced to back down and shelve the scheme.  Or at least to tone it down somewhat.  They are fully aware that they are betraying their promises and further eroding their reputation for straight dealing by bringing these proposals back to the table now.  Don't imagine that the sight of David Davis revisiting his past triumphs is anything other than excruciating for senior Coalition ministers (though it must be of some comfort to them to reflect that, not having been given a job in government, he's unable to resign in protest).
 
The likeliest explanation for this development remains Davis's, that the "securicrats" (or is it "securocrats"?) of the Home Office have worn down ministerial resistance (resistance which, in Theresa May's case, may well have been half-hearted at best).  In fact, the latest proposals are a far cry from the all-encompassing super-database of which GCHQ used to dream (and possibly still does), or which the US authorities have been busy building in Utah.  (Even if the British government isn't storing details of everything you've ever done online or on a mobile phone, Uncle Sam is.)  The onus will be on ISPs to keep hold of the data, who will no doubt transfer the costs on to their subscribers.  GCHQ will merely be able to demand to see anything they want, at any time; which probably achieves much the same practical effects as a giant database, but is considerably cheaper and sounds slightly less scary. 

The last time there was a big row about this, Henry Porter (who seems to have gone rather quiet since the Coalition came to power) made some rather perceptive remarks:


We should not be lulled into seeing this as change in the government's goal of knowing everything about every one of us. The civil servants behind the scheme have a very long horizon indeed – an agenda that is designed to survive cuts in public spending and any change of government.

They will argue the urgent necessity of the case with force and plausibility to inexperienced Conservative ministers, as they have done to the co-operative second raters in the present government. I pray that a future government will have the gumption, sense of history and political values to resist these arguments...

Fat, as they say, chance.

There may be a European dimension to all this; there usually is.  EU Referendum mentions that the Data Retention Directive (under which details of every email sent and website visited are already logged and stored) is currently being revised.  "Does anyone believe that, with data retention being an occupied field, the British government is working entirely independently, and has not consulted with the commission on this?" 

Probably not.  But the British security apparatchiks have long been among the most enthusiastic pushers of EU expansionism in this particular area, hoping (as is their way) that bringing in Brussels will enable them to get round political reluctance at home.  This is not some alien imposition.  There is in fact rather more concern for privacy and internet freedom at an official level in parts of continental Europe than in either Britain or the USA, whose security services remain institutionally paranoid. 

Note also that when the last government abandoned its plans for a Massive Database of Stuff, instead proposing that the ISPs retain the data, the accompanying consultation document spoke of the "need to ensure that UK companies collect and store additional types of communications data about their own services, which are not included under the EU Data Retention Directive. This includes data that communication service providers do not generate or process about their services."  The latest proposals are hard to pin down (no-one seems entirely sure just what is being proposed) but it looks a lot like that.

But while we're on the subject of Europe, do you remember (or have you heard of) the Stockholm Programme, a grand coming-together of internal security, immigration, criminal justice and surveillance systems across the EU?  Central to it is a secretive new Standing Committee for Internal Security, reassuringly known as COSI, to co-ordinate policy between national forces and EU organisations. 

The scheme was described European Civil Liberties Network in 2009 as part of a "paradigm shift" in policing, the economic motor for which was provided by the "security-industrial complex".  It went on:


We are now witnessing the political ‘securitisation’ of a whole host of complex policy issues, from food and energy supply to complex social and environmental phenomena such as climate change and migration. The result is an increasingly security-militarist approach to protracted social and economic problems. At times of heightened global insecurity, the danger is that the rule of law becomes secondary to the objective of threat neutralisation. 

At times like this I like to remember something Michael Portillo said in an episode of the Moral Maze a little over three years ago:

I having been been in government have every reason for believing that the government routinely abuses the powers it has. It's not a matter of the last resort, it's the first resort. It isn't something that happens exceptionally, it happens all the time.

 Worth hanging on the wall, I think.