Friday, 11 July 2014

Freedom or security? Is this really the choice?


It's OK folks, I'm not going to recycle that Ben Franklin quote but you'll all have noticed that the government, the possible next government and perhaps the last government too (not to mention governments in Europe and the USA) are all very keen to tell you that them having the power to stick their neb into any and every part of our lives is necessary for reasons of 'national security'.

You see, dear reader, some British people have decided that living in Birmingham or Billericay is dull and have headed off to Syria or some other part of the middle east to join in the excitingly murderous civil wars going on round there. These young folk are, in the jargon of today, "radicalised" and represent a serious existential threat to our civilisation and to that nebulous but convenient thing, 'national security'.

"It is the first duty of government to protect our national security and to act quickly when that security is compromised. As events in Iraq and Syria demonstrate, now is not the time to be scaling back on our ability to keep our people safe."

Now I rather understand why Prime Ministers are wont to say this sort of thing - after all when there is some sort of terrorist incident they're the ones who have to front up the government's response and deal with the media's inevitable "you didn't do enough" line.  And there are some British people fighting out there in the middle east who may well return to the UK puffed up with their radicalised ideas ready to do terrible things. It's not clear how many there are out there - some reports suggest 700 and other reports also suggest that a couple of hundred or so are already back in the UK.

So it seems eminently sensible for the security forces to keep an eye on these chaps so as to make sure they aren't up to nefarious stuff that threatens our security. This is what we employ spies to do, I think. But those spies have all the powers and systems they need to keep tabs on a relatively small number of dodgy radicalised men who've been out to Syria on some sort of jihad. I don't see how the ability to monitor people who have done nothing wrong and are doing nothing wrong adds to our security.

This intrusion makes us less secure. It doesn't make us safer from the terrorist or the murderer but it provides government with the means to interfere in the lives of innocent people. This is the world of micro-chipped waste bins, covert surveillance of parents, the use of anti-social behaviour orders to effect social control and the preference for the banning of anything that makes the police or security services have to do their core job of protecting us.

We are less secure because an ever widening collection of anonymous officials can order investigations, gather data and take action to enforce a mountain of controls and regulations. Everything from the smoking ban in pubs and the use of curfew orders on drinking through to legislation on speech that is so broadly written as to allow the authorities to arrest almost anyone on whatever pretext they want. And all this intervention in our lives is done to protect us, to prevent offence and to make sure that we all comply with the latest iteration of equalities-speak dreamt up by those with an interest in extending its scope.

For sure the government won't be earwigging you calling the local kebab shop for a delivery of doner and chips. Nor will they be routinely opening your post or giggling at your inane text messages. But they are giving themselves the power to do these things should they wish to. All on the basis of 'national security', a term so ill-defined as to place little or no limit on the scope of the security services and police.

If we are to have changes to surveillance rules and to give secret agencies powers to make greater use of such powers then this needs to be accompanied by two other significant additions - much greater openness and transparency from the security agencies and strong guarantees of free speech in legislation. Conducting a review of laws created for a pre-internet age does make some sense but this should not be undertaken without a wider public understanding of what any new rules might mean. Simply saying something akin to "look at the scary terrorist man with a beard" as the basis for new rules isn't right and gives me little comfort that my freedoms - especially my right to an opinion you may disagree with - will be protected.


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