I believe in British traditions of liberty and freedom. A society that is based on strong civil liberties and human rights is likely to be much more resilient in the face of terrorism or extremism than one that suppresses the rights of its citizens. However much effort oppressive states put into their security arrangements, they remain fundamentally brittle and insecure.
At the same time, a government that does not maintain strong security against the threats its people face is failing in its duty. What’s more, inadequate security leaves people feeling vulnerable, reluctant to express themselves freely, and unwilling to participate in civil society. Feelings of vulnerability may also encourage some hotheads to take matters into their own hands – and such vigilantism plays into the hands of the extremists.
The protection of rights through security applies as much to countering serious crime as it does to terrorism. Victims of child abuse, trafficking or extortion cannot exercise their freedoms; they are exploited and oppressed by those stronger than themselves, and society has a responsibility to do what it can to safeguard them.
The ability of the police and security agencies to do this important work of protecting our society and its vulnerable people is under threat from changing technology. We expect them today not just to follow up a crime or terrorist attack and identify the perpetrators, but to do all they can to stop the attack or crime from taking place at all. They can only do this if they have the tools to do so – and the tools at their disposal are no longer fit for the purpose.
Technological changes mean that it is much harder than it was a decade ago for the police or security agencies to find out what terrorists or criminals are saying among themselves. There are so many channels of communication open to us all – telephone, text, email, Facebook, WhatsApp, Snapchat and many more. Getting access to all of these is challenging, and has been made much more difficult by the revelations of Edward Snowden, the American contractor who publicised the activities of the US National Security Agency as it monitored and intercepted Internet-based communications.
Whatever you think of Snowden’s actions (and there is some irony in the fact that someone claiming to be concerned about intrusive state activities should end up living under the protection of Russia), his revelations have led to a position where the terrorists and criminals now know enough about interception capabilities to avoid scrutiny, while Internet and communications providers are reluctant to help the authorities as much as they did in case they suffer commercial disadvantage or media criticism.
The legal powers under which the police and security agencies access communications for intelligence or evidential purposes have become outdated; they were not designed for the current digital world.Increasing areas of digital communications are beyond the reach of law enforcement and they are being exploited by those who prey on the vulnerable. It is imperative that the laws that govern this issue are brought up to date. If nothing is done, things will not stand still – they will get worse. It would be bizarre if we were to reach a position where the benefits of new technology were available to criminals and terrorists but were forbidden to the security agencies and police! Sticking with the status quo will bring us to that point.
No doubt those who oppose such legislation will claim that this is merely an excuse for sinister forces within the state to snoop on the harmless activities of ordinary people going about their private business. I have always found this argument perplexing. There is more than enough for the agencies and the police to do, and no appetite to do things that would be purposeless and illegal.
The biggest problem for the legitimate monitoring of communications, given the nature of the digital world, is identifying the communications of people whom you are genuinely worried about. That anyone would want to make that even more difficult by wasting effort spying on perfectly innocent members of the public is fanciful. Of course new powers should be subject to independent oversight and accountability, as they are today, and I have no doubt that Parliament would scrutinise very carefully that aspect of any new legislation. But not legislating at all would be negligent.
In general, I believe that as far as possible people should be left to get on with their lives as they choose, without the state getting in the way. But if people are to get on with their lives in peace and freedom, there are some things that only the government can do – and one of those is to maintain security and combat crime. That means providing the tools to make that possible. Legislation to permit accountable and proportionate access by the security and law enforcement agencies to digital communications and data is one of those tools.