Monday, 27 May 2013

Woolwich and the Snoopers Charter

Some commentators have expressed surprise at the alacrity with which the likes of John Reid, Lord West and Lord Carlile used the Woolwich murder to call for the reintroduction of the Communications Data Bill (aka Snoopers' Charter) long before there was any possible evidence that giving the police and other authorities access to details of everyone's internet use would have made any difference. The sight of such bigwigs demanding draconian new laws, soon to be followed by others, might strike an uninformed observer as part of a co-ordinated campaign. To me, it merely confirmed what I have long suspected, that the security establishment retains undiminished zeal for its long-cherished programme of mass surveillance, and any excuse will do. This was no simple knee-jerk.

Even as it became clear that the two alleged killers (Michaels Adebelajo and Adebewale) already known to the security services - and could therefore have been comprehensively monitored and tracked under already existing law - Home Office sources were letting it be known that Theresa May was very keen indeed to press ahead with new legislation, the only obstacle to the passage of which was assumed to be Nick Clegg. The fact that the Bill was subjected to detailed and devastating scrutiny by a Parliamentary joint committee, and that the Home Office has failed to answer or even respond to the criticisms made of its disproportionate, heavy-handed, vastly expensive and impractical proposals, seems to have been forgotten. Something bad has happened; therefore Something Must Be Done, even something that would (as Eric Pickles, perhaps going off-message, admitted) have made no difference.

But of course something bad was always going to happen eventually, and so the security nuts win either way. They are constantly needy. Highly competent and professional, the true experts (which is why we are asked to trust them) with all the resources of a modern state to draw upon, nevertheless they present themselves as being in desperate need on ever-more power and ever-greater resources, as though they are helpless in the face of a small number of largely impotent and pathetic extremists. Politicians meanwhile want to be seen doing something in response to a crisis. Whether it will actually work, or is at all relevant, is of lesser importance than the legislative activity itself. Precisely because the CDB has been so robustly criticised on civil liberties grounds it has become a totem for people who like to talk grandly of balancing security with civil liberties, a phrase that always seems to mean giving the police and the security services (and a whole lot of other governmental and quasi-governmental outfits) ever more power over the citizen. It is something that authoritarian New Labour dinosaurs like the ex-Communist Reid can wave around as a virility symbol.

The murder of Lee Rigby cannot in itself be a plausible reason for introducing (or wanting to introduce) the Snoopers' Charter, given that the accumulation of masses of data on every British citizen would have made precisely zero difference in the case of men who were already on the authorities' radar. I would go further: Woolwich is actually a good argument against the CDB. Identifying potential terrorists and extremists isn't the problem. Despite the myth of the "clean-skin", almost all those involved in terrorist plots and actions turn out to be known to the authorities, often through a past association with Anjem Choudary. If opportunities were missed to intercept the two Michaels before they committed their outrage, it was not through lack of electronic surveillance, but rather because intensively monitoring even the relatively small number of likely terrorists (around three thousand at most) to the extent that would be necessary is impractical and probably disproportionate. Strangely, the one measure that actually would help to secure more convictions of terrorist suspects, making intercept evidence available as evidence in court, has long been bitterly opposed by the security services.

What the spooks' continued the desire for the CDB reveals is their continued obsession with technical fixes, with IT and with mass surveillance for its own sake. Having access to the information has become an end in itself. It wonuldn't prevent terrorism, but it would open up huge new avenues of potential abuse, as did RIPA. It would represent another giant step towards a fully monitored population, though not of course a final one. Indeed, from the point of view of the securocrats, the CDB is a very imperfect tool, allowing access to information about who someone was in contact with but not to the actual details of what was said. This lack, currently being stressed by the CDB's proponents as proof of its moderation and respect for citizens' privacy, would, before long, be presented by those very same people people as a loophole, one that needlessly prevents the security services and the police from having the evidence they need to keep the public safe.

You can bet that if the CDB or something like it is eventually passed, either by this government or the next, then the next unpredictable terrorist incident will swiftly be adduced as evidence that the Snoopers' Charter didn't go nearly far enough, and that something much more intrusive is now needed. This is a train that only goes in one direction.