Talking Politics

Woolwich does not justify the return of the snoopers’ charter

The period which immediately follows a terror attack is always uniquely dangerous. The leashes which hold certain dogs at bay are loosened. Far-right groups like the EDL and the BNP try to capitalise. Politicians use the event to justify whatever opinion they already held – Ken Livingstone and George Galloway have been unfortunate examples of this. Conservative commentator Toby Young even used it to justify the free schools programme.

But the most cynical and pernicious response of all comes from the security industry, whose lobbying operation took no time to spin into operation. The Woolwich attack gave it an opportunity to revive its seemingly-moribund plans for a snoopers' charter. The securocrats in Whitehall started whispering in ministers' ears. Lord West, the former first sea lord and security minister, made his view clear. The former reviewer of terror laws Lord Carlisle, whose assessment of what constitutes a civilised country is alien to the basic notions upon which this one is based, chipped in with a predictable contribution.

Worst of all was John Reid, former Labour home secretary and G4S 'group consultant'. The blood was barely dry on the body of Lee Rigby when the growling security advocate started promoting the communications data bill. There is a willing ear for his rhetoric. Home secretary Theresa May is still smarting from the humiliation of having Nick Clegg rule out the snoopers' charter live on air. She will need little convincing to resurrect it.

The press doesn't help. Already the tone is becoming accusatory. Questions are being asked about why these men were free to do what they did if they were known to MI5. The answer to this question could either be that MI5 dropped the ball or that we live in a free country and there simply wasn't enough basis to be tracking them at that moment. If it's the former, MI5 will add to the voices calling for new powers to help camouflage some of its embarrassment. But ultimately, we do not know what happened and it is unfortunate that the press can't resist shining a spotlight before it knows what it is searching for. It creates a momentum of reaction which eventually leads to badly-written law. It establishes a climate of frantic reaction rather than sober reflection.

The most important fact about the Woolwich killing is this: we have very little information about what happened. We do not know what drove them to it, whether they had assistance, if they are part of a larger group or are self-starters, if they conducted surveillance on their target or took an opportunity which was unexpectedly offered to them. We do not know how much they discussed it or whether it was in person or over electronic communication devices or even with whom. Under such ignorance any proposed solution addresses a problem which is not yet known to exist.

We should be deeply suspicious of the motives of these siren voices and the pertinence of their solutions.

The snoopers' charter remains an extremely heavy-handed piece of legislation which will anyway do little to counter the problems it purports to address. It would create the most powerful electronic surveillance system on earth and in doing so send a terrible message to those overseas who wish to spy on their own citizens. It would turn internet service providers (ISPs) into spies on their own customers. It is a gross violation of privacy. And most importantly, it cannot, on a technological level, satisfy the safeguards its own defenders claim to believe in.

Promoters of the snoopers' charter say intelligence agencies will only be aware of the fact an email or instant message or voice call has taken place – not the contents of the message. Technology experts counter that there is no way of achieving this. Recorders must be put at the source – at the level of the ISP. From there content will be recorded. We would just have to trust the intelligence services not to look at it. But when it comes to your privacy, trust is the last thing you should afford intelligence agencies.

And anyway: it doesn't work. The top-end mobile devices coming on the market now have inbuilt software making them unhackable. This technology will soon spread into cheaper devices.

But beyond the specific inadequacies of the snoopers' charter, we should be extremely wary of legislation passed in haste.

New Labour was particularly dreadful at this. Tony Blair's seemingly endless criminal justice bills started to pile on top of each other: a War and Peace of draconian legislation, love letters to the red tops gathering dust in Whitehall, the freedoms they removed still largely unreturned to the public.

Some of the freedoms removed by legislation like this continue to damage our legal culture and freedom as a society. One example from 2010: when it became clear that child pornographers were using a loophole in the law to create videos which could be classified as animation, the government acted. It did not so carefully. It did it by banning images of children in sexual situations. Of course, this dragged several comics and art books into the law. It criminalised hundreds of thousands of people at a stroke. Anyone who owns a copy of popular graphic novel Watchmen, which has one scene in which a young boy walks in on a couple having sex, is included in that. Are the police rounding up its owners? Of course not. But to create crimes an ordinary member of the public could not reasonably have predicted is contrary to our legal tradition. To allow authorities to spread the legislative net so wide that almost anyone can be arrested at any time for something or other is also against our legal tradition.

To his credit, David Cameroon was quick to rule out an early decision to revive the snoopers' charter. There would be no "knee jerk" response, he told reporters outside Downing Street yesterday.

This has always been one of his most commendable characteristics as leader: a level head. It is not just for civil liberties issues either. He keeps on colleagues when the press pack is insistent on blood. For all his many faults, he has proved himself a steely and confident leader in a crisis.

He appears to recognise the solemnity with which British law must be approached. He seems to respect the fact that each piece of legislation a government passes restricts the freedom of Britain and must be treated as such, not as a press release for tabloid editors and a positive spike in the news cycle.

That doesn't mean the snoopers' charter won't come back. The security industry and its paid and unpaid allies are spoiling to resuscitate it. But it means we've got a fighting chance of stopping it.

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