Yesterday I attended the Scrambling for Safety conference at the LSE. I was really impressed by the wide range of speakers, from the leader of human rights group Liberty Shami Chakrabarti to the Conservative MP David Davis. Finally a real discussion featuring voices from a wide range of political and ideological affiliations, although noting the absence of any Labour politicians. It was a bit less exciting when I realised they all seemed to agree…
The members of the panel talked about the importance of privacy and the negative implications of the invasion of privacy. They also agreed, particularly Julian Huppert and David Davis MP, that politicians generally do not have a clue and often take advice from civil servants and security officials as fact. They often seem to rely on information without attempting to validate or research it themselves, probably due to the volume of information that relates to many issues. But what I really wanted to know was how much would it cost? Is it even viable or productive? Would it in any way benefit the general public in a way that would justify such an invasion of privacy? If not, why on earth was this happening? If stronger policies on surveillance are indeed necessary what are the alternatives?
Some light was shed on these questions in the second panel, who could not identify any real benefit of swamping the police with massive amounts of data and the chaos which would ensue as a result. Data gathering on such a large scale does not seem to make sense at all. If the government’s plans to combat serious crime and terrorism with these measures, this shows a clear lack of foresight. The panel emphasized that gathering data in this way would only catch very basic internet users, as there are so many ways to hide the data being picked up, such as using encrypted pages. Monitoring basic internet use, when more advanced users (you don’t need to be very advanced to use dropbox for example) know a way around it, would encourage a culture of “underground internet use”. This would only complicate things for the police/security services. It is also a waste of money and resources to invest in a policy that is fundamentally ineffective and extremely invasive of basic rights and freedoms. The costs are therefore certainly not outweighed by the benefits, which seem negligible if there even are any.
Whitfield Diffie, somewhat of a celebrity in the tech world, so I was told, addressed the issue of privacy of search terms such as e.g. divorce lawyers or cancer clinics which may be largely indicative of your private life. By accessing an individual’s search data the government would be enforcing a huge invasion of privacy, but it would also be largely counter productive and irrelevant to the police regarding surveillance matters.
A retired police officer in the audience stated that it appears the government are seeking to implement preemptive measures. Such data is often unusable and overwhelming to the police force because of the sheer volume. Analysing such data is complex and time consuming and thus provides little value in many investigations which need to be carried out swiftly. He gave the example of the recent shootings in Tolouse – France, where police had access to 500 intercepted email messages which provided a lead to the suspect. However the manpower to analyse and identify suspects in pressing operations will not always be available in relation to processing data. The police may not have enough people assigned to a particular case to be able to go through all the available data.
The conference was wrapped up by Nick Pickles from Big Brother Watch, who ended the day with a quote from David Cameron criticising Labour’s policies on surveillance. He pointed out that the coalition government must keep their word, something I fully agree with. He then added that he was standing for the Conservatives in the next election, making his short speech seem a little more like a self interested campaign. However the fact that the organisers were from a wide variety of civil society organisations allowed a broad discussion on an issue that affects everyone regardless of their political affiliation.
The main arguments made at the conference, appeared to be that the proposal is not only a gross invasion of fundamental rights and freedoms in both national and European law, but that it is also both costly and ineffective. The plan seems to be based on a misinformed and misguided policy relating to security, which doesn’t seem to provide any benefit to government, the police or national security. While this issue could have huge negative consequences it is still barely understood by either government or the public.
Shami Chakrabarti used the quote “they say the innocent have nothing to hide – but they do have something to protect”. At present there is little legislation relating to privacy law in the UK and Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) – the right to a private and family life, is often loosely applied. The Scrambling for Safety conference highlighted the fact that even current law on communications remains highly contentious. The proposed casual and constant invasion of privacy is not in the public interest, neither in terms of security nor cost. The proposal is unrealistic and inappropriate, what is really needed in the UK are stronger privacy laws/rights to protect our freedom and to fully integrate and apply Article 8 of the ECHR in national law.