Twenty sixteen has been a brutal year. From the Bataclan to the murders in an Orlando LGBT club there is a lengthening roll call of savagery. The shared sorrow and sense of vulnerability we feel in the wake of such events demands a response.
Years of atrocities have left politicians scrambling for what that response should be. All too often the answer has been sweeping surveillance powers that target all of us, not just those who wish us harm. Barely noticed in the deluge of tragic news and referendum fever, the government has been pushing through legislation that will fundamentally change the relationship of the state to every one of us.
The Tories’ Investigatory Powers Bill will bring in a surveillance law with unprecedented scope. It will allow spooks, police and government departments to snoop on your private communications and internet use. Information about your emails, phone calls and web use will be hoovered up, recorded and stored. Powers police and the security services already have to hack your devices will be set in stone. Essentially, your smartphone can be commandeered as a tracking device, without you being a suspect, let alone guilty of any crime.
This is a massive overreach with the potential for disaster. Think along the lines of what would South Yorkshire Police have done with intimate personal details of the Hillsborough families campaigners. Even if you’re not a noted activist, keeping your data leaves you vulnerable to the stalkers, phishers and cyberblaggers that the government insists we should protect ourselves from.
Just because these proposals are massively intrusive does not mean in security terms they will be massively effective. We at Open Intelligence thinktank pointed out to Parliament that it’s far from clear how extracting the right information will work technically. The joint bill committee noted our concerns, but the government has failed to act. Why this matters is because similar measures were tried in Denmark and abandoned in 2014 as IT projects failed and crucially they were ineffective in investigations.
Installing a dumb Big Brother is the last thing we should be doing if we are serious about keeping ourselves safer. Time and again the perpetrators of terrorism have been shown to be already known to the security services. The report on the murder of Lee Rigby detailed how much information was gathered about his killers. The failing was not surveillance, but in analysis and resourcing. Diverting resources to snoop on us is misguided.
The events of 2016 demand a rethink in approach to our security. The rush to a Big Brother society is a lazy reaction from our politicians who appear to think the answer to difficult problems is just to throw more technology at them. When democracy comes under attack we must defend it. Holding fast to that does not mean being “soft”; it means finding the right and effective responses. In this terrible year we must not let our liberties become a casualty too.
Loz Kaye (@LozKaye) is co-founder of the Open Intelligence thinktank