By Bill Lytton
Before it was shadowed by the heinous attacks in Paris, France last week, it emerged that the NHS is in a grim state. Numerous hospitals across the UK declared major incidents.
Inevitably, a showdown ensued between the incumbent guardians of finance, the Conservatives, and the self-appointed angels of the NHS, Labour. The stand-off was a trite, if not predictable, medley of self-defence strategies and outright accusations. In sum, Ed and Dave are both incompetent – according to their respective opponents. Amid the huffing, some interesting quotes did emerge that are relevant here. Namely, Dave accused Ed of “playing political football” with the NHS; others went with “cheap political point-scoring”.
A justifiable criticism it may be, but it’s a criticism that was hardly meted out in the wake of the Paris shootings. Following a speech on the economy in Nottingham, Dave promised that a future Conservative government, one where he’s prime minister, would push legislation that “makes sure we do not allow terrorists safe space to communicate with each other.”
He also said: “The first duty of any government is to keep our country and our people safe. The attacks in Paris once again demonstrated the scale of the terrorist threat that we face and the need to have robust powers through our intelligence and security agencies and policing in order to keep our people safe.”
This came after a meeting with MI5 head, Andrew Parker, whom provides the impetus for ramping up mass surveillance when warning of a “growing gap between the increasingly challenging threat and the decreasing availability of capabilities to address it.” To which Dave’s buddy, George Osborne, said on BBC Breakfast: “This is the national priority. We will put the resources in; whatever the security services need.”
“Only if we remain in government,” it should have continued. With the terror threat level still at ‘severe’ – the highest since 9/11 – and security apparently being the imperative, it’s obscure that the Tories will wait-out the election before making any moves on legislating the Communications Data Bill, known as the Snooper’s Charter. Is that a political football? Or are the Tories stuck in a mess of Nick Clegg’s apparent red tape?
It’s hypocritical given that Dave had just marched through Paris with leaders and citizens of the world to unite against terrorism and the denigration of free speech. Talking about the attacks at a press conference last week he said “we should never give up the values we believe in […] a free press, in freedom of expression, in the right of people to write and say what they believe.”
Lest we forget the events of August, 2013. This was the time of peak attention for Edward Snowden’s revelations of clandestine mass surveillance systems. David Miranda – partner of journalist and spying revelator, Glenn Greenwald – was apprehended, detained, and interrogated for nine hours under the Terrorism Act on suspicion of carrying documents leaked by Snowden.
Shortly after, editors at the Guardian revealed that, a month earlier, they had been threatened with legal action if they did not destroy the hard drives containing encrypted Snowden files. Overseen by GCHQ technicians, a Guardian editor and computer technician used angle grinders and other instruments to decimate the hard drives.
Back then, in Brussels, Dave made subtle threats to the media in support of those events. He warned that the media act with “social responsibility” or else face high court injunctions to prevent publication. Confusingly adding: “We have a free press, it’s very important the press feels it is not pre-censored from what it writes and all the rest of it.” The message was: “go ahead, press, but don’t.”
And so, as we see now, Dave is still pushing that view: Cameron, the man; the bastion of freedom. It seems like “political football”, attempting to secure an election win on the back of knee-jerk fear from the Paris attacks, it’s clear that his actual stance on freedom is fraught.
Or it’s even much the same: “We honour the fundamental right to free speech. Say whatever you want. We’ll collect it anyway.” That’s the nut of his current position; as he pushes the need for the ‘Snooper’s Charter’ and freedom at the same time – that’s an example of doublethink he’ll have difficulty reconciling.
His pledge to revive that charter, or the Communications Data Bill, would essentially stop methods of communication that are encrypted, thus they cannot be read by warrant-wielding security services. As reported recently, that could mean the demise of messengers like WhatsApp, Snapchat, FaceTime, and Apple’s iMessage. It would also cement the idea that personal privacy is the likely cost of security.
The harbinger of red tape, Nick Clegg, spoke about the incompatibility of freedom and a surveillance state at the Irish Embassy yesterday: “The irony appears to be lost on some politicians who say in one breath that they will defend freedom of expression and then in the next advocate a huge encroachment on the freedom of all British citizens.”
It’s worth pointing out, maybe to Dave himself, that the use of online encryption services has increased to ensure privacy for civilians – a freedom. That’s why the big-hitters of social networking pride themselves on secure communications. Legislation like this only moves regular folk into what he calls “dark spaces” of the internet.
But in the pursuit of this particular freedom, we’ll also have to contend with the obvious counter-argument: terrorists can use encrypted services for communication. While that is true, the current level of data and content received by members of the five eyes spying network – including the NSA and GCHQ – is too exhaustive to be effectively analysed and interpreted.
This can lead to what Kate Crawford calls “data black holes”. The likes of which failed to flag up the risks of the Tsarnaev brothers responsible for the Boston Marathon Bombings – despite actually having some data on them. And it’s no secret that NSA, GCHQ, and their governments are not exactly forthcoming with their success stories – I suppose that all remains in the dark areas of “national security”.
Surely more evidence and greater transparency is needed before pushing for more “robust powers” to security. And therein lays the argument against Dave and his notion of freedom; how much more security is needed for us to remain “free”?