Monday, 2 April 2012

The Surveilance Cart and the Policing Horse

People who know me will know I'm reasonably relaxed about my personal info... I'm happy for all sorts of companies and organisations to have my details, and to keep information about me. I tend to be pretty trusting about the way such organisations will treat my data - relying, it must be said, on the proper implantation of the Data Protection Act. Like many people, I'll opt out of spam and "third party" offers but that's pretty much it.

Like many people, too, I live much of my life online. Facebook, Twitter, Google all have large amounts of information about me. You only need to Google my username to find my electronic fingerprints all over it!

I take, I think, sensible precautions when purchasing things on the Internet, seeking to deal with reputable sites and using secure payment methods but other than that, my approach is basically a pragmatic one.

Indeed, pragmatism and a desire to explore both sides of any given issue so often stymies my blogging on big topics. So often an issue arises about which I will chew the cud before getting to a point of even considering a blog - by which point the moment will have passed. Not so this time.

You may wonder where this is going. Am I about to declare myself in favour of the State being able to track email and social media usage? Do I believe that such a step is vital for the Nation's security? Does Theresa May really need to be able to see who I've been e-mailing?

No, No and, unsurprisingly, No.

Whilst I don't believe I have anything to hide or anyone to hide it from, that doesn't mean to say I don't want privacy... Whilst I want security and protection from terrorists and organised crime, I want security and protection for all in their everyday online lives.

This means that there needs to be checks and balances in place before this sort of information is obtained and accessed. Warrants should be sought - and granted - before Police or the Security Services can carry out such surveillance. If there is the routine availability of detailed information, Terrorists and Criminals will find ways to circumvent the system - if there isn't, they may trust to other means to avoid coming to the attention of the authorities. 

Detection should come first. Due process should then be followed. Surveillance should be subject to the authority of the courts. The routine obtaining and storage of detailed records on the off-chance they may be required - or, worse, mined for information - is putting the surveillance cart before the policing horse.

The issue, which has come to the fore today due to intended (but unpublished) legislation, has caused much furore amongst fellow Lib Dems. Rightly so, given that Civil Liberties are central to our ideology. Here are  a couple of excerpts from the Preamble:
The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community...
We champion the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals...
Recognising that the quest for freedom and justice can never end, we promote human rights and open government...
Lynne Featherstone sent an e-mail to party members today on the subject of the proposed legislation - and cited some of the Liberal achievements of this government:
We’ve scrapped ID cards, ended child detention for immigration purposes, stopped indefinite retention of innocent peoples’ DNA, restored the right to protest in Parliament Square, scrapped control orders and ended 28-day detention without charge – to name but a few!
Security is a big issue, and important. But in a democracy the wishes of those who seek to guarantee those securities must be tempered by the rights of the masses. Liberal Democrat MPs and Ministers must ensure that these measures do not turn the exceptional into the normal. An internal briefing document - widely leaked today - seeks to contrast this government with some of the measures promoted by the previous Labour government. It is right to do so, but care needs to be taken to avoid falling into the same traps.


Fellow Lib Dem bloggers, Alex and Caron, have also contributed on this topic - reinforcing the Liberal Democrat policy on the matter in a measured and calm approach to the topic. Lib Dem policy on the matter - made at Conference just a few weeks ago - can be found in section 5 of this document.

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