The last few weeks have seen some extraordinary events unfold. We have seen with the revelations from Edward Snowden that the trust we had in our politicians – either to represent us as citizens or to demonstrate that they are capable or exerting proper control of the government and security services – has been seriously eroded.
Whenever there is a terrorist outrage, there is a united response from the public, press and politicians. The randomness of the attack and the injuries to innocent victims going about their daily business brings in all of us a deep sense of horror and disgust. There is an immediate call for ‘something to be done’. Politicians promise no stone will be unturned in the hunt to find the perpetrators and there is rare unanimity in the House of Commons. It is in this climate that calls are made for more legislation, stiffer penalties and greater powers given to the law enforcers. The profound sense of outrage overcomes any qualms about due process and human rights.
When things calm down the shortcomings of fighting fire with fire become clearer. The experience of Northern Ireland showed the risks inherent in too aggressive an approach to tackling terrorism which included creating martyrs and alienating the local population.
There can be few people who do not wish to see our law enforcement officers have the necessary powers to deter, detect, defeat or capture terrorists after an event. This includes the ability to intercept communications – electronic or otherwise – stopping suspected terrorists at ports and airports and might include holding them in custody longer than is normally permitted by PACE.
But implicit in these extra powers is that they are used sparingly and that they are subject to controls by either the judiciary or by politicians. They must be proportionate and controlled and directed at terrorist activity . And it is here that things start to break down.
We are assured by politicians that there is oversight exerted by the Home Secretary and that intercepting messages is only done where necessary and is strictly controlled. The Snowden revelations showed that this is a long way from the truth. The NSA in America intercepts for example all Skype, Google, Microsoft, Apple and Verizon traffic. This is shared with GCHQ who boast of a light touch when it comes to regulation. GCHQ intercepts all cable traffic. Of course this isn’t people sitting in a darkened room with headsets listening to you talking to your son in Canada or your daughter in Australia. Filters are used to listen to key words and links are made between known phone numbers and the process is extremely sophisticated.
It may be that there are many who think that is a price worth paying. We cannot be too squeamish about these things they say and if the intelligence services need to intercept all messages then so be it if it prevents an outrage. ‘If you’ve done nothing wrong then you’ve got nothing to worry about’ is William Hague’s line. The problem is that is not what we have been told. This statement seems to imply that everyone’s communications are listened to but it doesn’t matter because they have done nothing wrong – a long way from tight and selective control.
Recently we have the case of Mr Miranda being arrested under section 7 powers. He is a friend of the journalist who has done a lot to expose this story. He is not a terrorist. He was held for 9 hours and his possessions were seized. He is not charged with a terrorist offence.
Many of the public have been outraged by this action. It seems to be a clear misuse of the legislation, indeed Lord Faulkner, who introduced it during the Northern Ireland troubles, has said as much.
Yet with a handful of honourable exceptions, our politicians have remained silent.
To repeat: most people are content with vigorous security service and police actions so long as it is proportionate, selective and controlled. Recent events have shown that they are not. The people we need to protect our interests, to ask questions on our behalf, to exert oversight and to ensure that the powers are used appropriately, whose duty it is to ensure that the wide range of powers are used to protect our safety, are clearly failing.
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