Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety
Benjamin Franklin (written for the Pennsylvania Assembly in its Reply to the Governor — 11th Nov 1755)
This year marks 800 years since King John signed the Magna Carta and 326 since the Bill of Rights. These two documents provide the cornerstone of the rights and liberties we enjoy in the UK and have informed other democratic countries such as the US. Yet those liberties are imperiled by calls to increase surveillance on our communications, on our emails, and social media — with oversite not by a court, but by the executive and the government.
Those liberties are protected because the government is made up of various groups, such as an executive, a legislature and courts — they act in balance so protecting the populace from any one gaining too much power. In his book Spirit of Laws Charles Montesquieu (1689-1755) warned of the dangers of letting one part of the government get too much power
When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or in the same body of magistrates, there can be no liberty; because apprehensions may arise, lest the same monarch or senate should enact tyrannical laws, to execute them in a tyrannical manner.
Innocent until proven guilty?
Within the UK a person is not considered guilty of a crime unless that guilt has been proven beyond reasonable doubt. In order to do this the accused (or more usually his advocate) can face his accuser in court, and subject the evidence of their guilt to rrigorous debate. Yet too often the evidence obtained from surveillance is denied the court on the grounds of National Security, denying the accused any fair trial, or even any knowledge of the evidence that led to his accusation.
Nor is this surveillance being done with the consent of us the population. We are told this is to keep us safe, but this power is too open to abuse. Even in a relatively benign environment such as the UK this can happen — as was the case with stop and search powers granted under the Terrorist Act 2000 — thousands have been subject to searches, yet we do not have that many terrorists in the UK despite the years the IRA was planting bombs both in Northern Ireland and the mainland.
There are dangers when such behavior targets a particular sector of the community, this can lead to members of that sector feeling marginalised and disenfranchised — driving them into the very terrorist groups the legislation was designed to fight.
The terrorist, by definition has chosen to use violence as a means of getting the political change he desires, the democratic process — that of change by the consent of the majority is the antithesis of this. This in turn means to succeed the terrorist must dismantle the very democratic rights our forebears fought for — by weakening those rights — we do the terrorists work for them, and so encourage further acts of violence.
It is often argued that we should allow increased surveillance because if we have done nothing wrong we have nothing to hide. Yet if the government can use it’s surveillance to suppress and undermine dissent then you are not in a free society. Civil Disobedience, protest — these are the very things which make the democratic society what it is.
It could be argued that this is a price worth paying if it keeps us safe but the simple fact is that it does not work. Both men who murdered Lee Rigby and the terrorists who attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo were under surveillance until just before they committed acts of terrorism, yet it was determined that they posed no danger. Had the authorities been examining the social network posts and other communications they may have come to a different conclusion.
Approximately 25% of the world’s internet communications goes through a connection which first comes to shore in Southern England. This is a very large body of data and one that takes time to examine properly. Such is the size of this data that GCHQ stores it for later analysis. None of this is as a result of a court order, indeed it is arguably illegal under EU law. Nor is there any real time limit on this blanket surveillance. The UK, Ireland, France, Germany, Spain, Italy — all have suffered sustained terrorist campaigns on their soil. Terrorism has existed for decades, even centuries, there is no reason to expect it to end soon and as such suspension neither will the bulk surveillance
Clearly there comes a time when the security services need to have site the communications of individuals — there is nothing wrong with this — it is what we expect the Police and the Security services to do. When they need to examine the communications of an individual — apply to the court, get a warrant and ensure that any evidence used to convict is available when the accused is tried. This is the basis of our liberties. In so doing it undermines the terrorists and demonstrates the strength of our democratic ideals. It also retains the fundamental relationship between the government and the government. When it comes to bulk surveillance It is time to simply say ‘No’.