Micron Associates: On Prism, the Snooper's Charter, whistleblowers, spies and secret courts - what can we say?
On Prism, the Snooper's Charter, whistleblowers, spies and secret courts - what can we say?, blog code85230508839
In February 2009 the Convention of Modern Liberty gathered a distinguished crowd who cared about the issues raised by a growing UK surveillance state. Their words are worth revisiting today.
'A wake up call', said Anthony Barnett of the Convention on Modern Liberty, a series of meetings of those who felt that there was a growing range of threats to our fundamental rights and freedom in Britain: people, as he said, 'who wanted to test out whether this was the case in public, and debate, if the argument held, why this was so and what could be done'.
Planned in six months by openDemocracy, Liberty, the Rowntree Trusts, the Guardian and NO2ID, it brought together over 1,500 people in London, hundreds in the parallel conventions across the UK, and many more via the web, leading the Observer to dub it 'by far the largest civil liberties convention ever held in Britain.'
I thought it would be interesting to go back to those discussions on 'can privacy have a future?', 'are our civil liberties under a grave threat?', 'judges and politicians' and 'is there a media-political class?', to remind ourselves what a remarkable range of people had to say then about the surveillance state. Since I edited the volume of our proceedings, this was a relatively easy exercise. (Speakers’ biographies can be found at the end.)
One keynote speaker from the Convention is sadly no longer with us. This is what he said:
“The first catalyst is technological advance: it is now technically possible to observe, to record, to track, to measure, to analyse, to retrieve in a way which could never be done before…. But the possession of great powers by the state, is not a reason for using them. We have, after all, enjoyed for many years, the power to destroy the world, but have wisely refrained from doing so. … The second catalyst of change has been security: security against terrorist attack; security against the commission of crime. These are not considerations which any rational person would dismiss. But nor are they considerations the mere invocation of which trumps any other. Eternal vigilance must again be the watchword: to ensure that intrusive powers are limited to what is demonstrably necessary; to ensure that powers conferred for one purpose are not used for another; to detect and eradicate abuses. It is worth recalling Benjamin Franklin’s observation that ‘he who would put security before liberty deserves neither’. It is also worth recalling John Locke’s even more salutary warning:
As soon as men decide that all means are permitted to fight an evil, then their good becomes indistinguishable from the evil that they set out to destroy. “
But the people who said the following are still with us:
HENRY PORTER “It’s no exaggeration to say that, unless we involve ourselves in the political process, ours will be the first generation in centuries of British history to pass on a less free society than the one we inherited. That is a shocking thought, but we still have time to act.”
“You are not to be trusted with laws,
So we shall put ourselves out of your reach.
We shall put ourselves beyond your amendment or abolition.
You do not need to argue about any changes we make, or to debate them, or to send your representatives to vote against them.
You do not need to hold us to account.
You think you will get what you want from an inquiry?
Who do you think you are?
What sort of fools do you think we are?”
A nation whose laws express fear and suspicion cannot sustain delight for very long; joy does not flourish in the garden of anxiety. The society these laws seem to be designed to bring about is one of institutionalised paranoia, of furtive hatred and low-level panic. Every scrap of delight and gladness we can find is a blow against that fear; every instance of civility and kindness we come across is a clean wind dispersing a foul vapour…
We are a better people than our government believes we are; we are a better nation. “
HELENA KENNEDY QC “Someone once said that power can turn even the gentlest of souls into a Nero. Well let me tell you, we have managed to see some Neros emerging in contemporary government. I always say there must be something in the drinking water at the Home Office. People who seem perfectly decent, who don’t have staring eyes, who don’t seem mad, go in there and are suddenly overwhelmed with the need to reduce our liberty. “
SIR DAVID VARNEY “Now, when I talk about bringing services together, I am saying that the sort of information we as a society need to share is name, national insurance number, date of birth and address. There needs to be a big discussion about whether that’s the right information to share: but I believe that the public have a right to know what information is being held by public services, what use it is being put to, and what the safeguards are for protecting the integrity of that information….
Member of the audience: I’d like to ask Sir David Varney why, if he believes that only four items of information are necessary for the database, we are being asked for 53?
David Varney: I was talking about information which is required for service delivery. If more information than the four items I have identified is required, then I believe we need the service organisation seeking that information to get the consent of the citizen to provide it. I think the 52 comes from security issues and you will have to ask these organisations because I certainly don’t know why they need that amount of information....”