Thursday, 19 November 2015

Labour Holds the Future of Surveillance in its Hands, by Loz Kaye

Even with operations ongoing, attention has started to turn to what the political response to the horrific Paris attacks should be. Already the pressure has been to push through new surveillance laws in the Investigatory Powers Bill.

Some like Lord Carlile, with ghoulish speed exploited the tragedy to push their own pro-surveillance agenda. This is despite France's having passed measures similar to the Bill. There is no hard evidence that encrypted communications were used, despite media claims.

The Home Secretary resisted calls to fast-track the bill. She can after all afford to be measured; as things stand, its passage is a done deal. That is, unless Labour has a significant change of heart.

Bluntly, since the General Election, that is the only prospect that civil liberties campaigners have of a law that properly balances liberty and security.

With the new parliamentary mathematics, the future of surveillance really does lie in Labour's hands. Going by recent history, it is fair to say a dramatic change of heart seems like something of a long shot.

One of the legacies of the Blair-Brown era is a well entrenched view in a section of the electorate that Labour is authoritarian, that it is still the party of ID cards, of 90-day detention, of former Home Secretaries who queue up to support ever more intrusive intercept powers.

So far it has been business as usual from Andy Burnham, who was keen to underline that the Investigatory Powers Bill isn't a “Snoopers' Charter” in his eyes, and even pressed for its passage to be speeded up due to the Paris attacks. 

This is despite some new signals coming out of the party, not least with digital rights champion Tom Watson being voted in as Deputy Leader. 

The recent thrust of the Labour Party has been much more pro-civil liberties, opposing scrapping the Human Rights Act, defending freedom of information, highlighting Tory threats to trade unionism.

Addressing the legitimate concerns about the bill would make complete sense in this context, not least as it relies on the Human Rights Act for its operation.

The Labour Party should reflect on the reality of what is being proposed.

It would keep the records of the councillor emailing residents about potholes, scoop up details of the activist planning by-election leafleting on social media. It would keep visits to trade union or cooperative society websites.

Without proper checks on how the security services use the immense amount of information generated by our on-line lives, it could build up a frighteningly accurate picture of any of us; of our political affiliations, for example.

Andy Burnham may not think this is mass surveillance, but it is clearly surveillance en masse

There is currently a genuine political opportunity for Labour on the issue.

The Liberal Democrats have been the most high profile and best informed of mainstream parties challenging the rush to blanket surveillance. But they are now tainted by being in government during the Snowden revelations scandal.

Their most high profile parliamentarian with relevant experience on the intelligence agencies is Lord Carlile, who is defiantly in favour of the Snoopers' Charter agenda. 

The possibility is there for Labour to demonstrate a break with the past which has seen the party, both apparently uninterested in contemporary digital politics, and unwilling to engage with the tech community's concerns on subjects ranging from intercept to the digital economy.

What ought to make an impression is that the people who have been most vocal about their concerns on the Investigatory Powers Bill are the very people who are supposed to carry it out – communications service providers and digital business.

The current turmoil in the party is a significant danger for campaigners who want to see an Investigatory Powers Act that is fit for purpose, and that does not hand away freedoms that were so hard won by the Labour Movement.

The number one narrative on Corbyn's leadership is that the party is weak on security, and even his most ardent supporters will surely concede the Leadership have done themselves no favours. 

We run the risk that arguing for the right measures on intercept powers will be sucked in to the vortex of tabloid hysteria. 

That is why the argument on surveillance must be made just as much on security grounds as on grounds of citizens' rights.

Does this look like a government that cares much for civil liberties? Weakening encryption, even by signalling we want communications to be able to decrypted by service providers, lays us open to devastating cyber attack.

The lack of focus and targeting in the bulk approach have left our country vulnerable by an inability to concentrate on the real present threats.

The government is considering spending an estimated £2.5 billion over a decade on storing information that all acknowledge will be mostly useless in protecting us, when £2.3 billion has been cut from policing.

When it comes to armed response units, it is Theresa May, not Corbyn, who is the immediate threat to them. She is happy make cuts to them while pouring money in to the bottomless pit which is blanket surveillance.

After all, being critical of the Investigatory Powers Bill could unite both sides in Labour right now, a radical new vision and strength on protecting the nation.

For all our sakes, it must.

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