HuffPost: Britain Sets An Example With Its Human Rights Laws – Counter-Extremism Policy Must Be No Different

To coincide with the publication of Free and Fair, HuffPost UK published an edited version of my chapter on their politics homepage.

Here’s the central message of the piece:

How can FCO diplomats credibly oppose the sinister monitoring of online discussion in China, when GCHQ is running a comparable mass data collection programme in the UK? How can NGOs credibly protest the prosecution of Cumhuriyet journalists Can Dündar and Erdem Gül in Turkey for ‘revealing state secrets’ when our own Law Commission has proposed that the UK adopt a similar law? And how can activists effectively protest the treatment of writers like Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia, imprisoned for merely imagining a new political system, when the UK Home Office is cooking up mechanisms to shut up our own radicals?

You can read the whole thing on HuffPost UK.

Whitehouse wiretap smear: GCHQ has reaped what it has sown

GCHQ

One thing I like to do on this blog is note the small and less spectacular effects of human rights violations on our democracy.

Too often, when we discuss government wrong-doing, or some power-grabbing piece of legislation, we speak in grand terms about how it could lead to the breakdown of democracy and the onset of totalitarianism. We always talk about the end state—Nineteen Eighty-Four, usually—which conveys the implicit message that the way-points in that journey are not terrible in-and-of themselves. Continue reading “Whitehouse wiretap smear: GCHQ has reaped what it has sown”

A Better Debate About No Platform? My Speech At the Leeds Beckett Festival of Politics and International Relations

This is an edited transcript of my speech to the Leeds Beckett Festival of Politics and International Relations Festival, delivered on 15th November 2016.  This first appeared on the Leeds Beckett University Politics and Applied Global Ethics (PAGE) blog.  You can listen to the unalloyed version of the speech on SoundCloud or via the player below.

Some Arguments Against No Platform

I want to first set out my views on No Platform policies. In short, I think they’re bad for free speech and they’re bad for the people they seek to protect.

The idea of No Platform is that it seeks to avoid giving someone the credibility of speaking at a prestigious institution. Those who call for No Platform claim it is not a form of censorship, because the person is subjected to the No Platform rule can always take their words elsewhere. Moreover (they say), legal protections for free speech relate to the government, and since the government is not involved in choosing who speaks at a university there is no real issue. Why can’t we choose who does and does not speak on our campus? Continue reading “A Better Debate About No Platform? My Speech At the Leeds Beckett Festival of Politics and International Relations”

The New Snooping Bill Needs a Total Rewrite

Don't Spy On Us

Yesterday I wrote again in defence of politicians.  Many of the frustrations that give rise to ‘anti-politics’ are borne of people not understanding how politics works: there is a constant need to compromise and any hard choice will end up disappointing people.

Sometimes, however, the anti-political feeling is justified.  I have rarely been as angry with politicians as I was when the coalition government passed the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act in just two days in 2014.  This legislation made lawful a number of mass violations of privacy that the security services had been caught doing without public or parliamentary consent.  The politicians from all parties made mendacious arguments in favour of the new law, claiming an ’emergency’ when there was none.

From that low point, my faith in parliament is slowly being restored. Continue reading “The New Snooping Bill Needs a Total Rewrite”

I Take Full Responsibility For Apple Inc Protecting The Privacy of a Dead Terrorist

Green Door, by leeroy

Apple have refused an FBI request to help crack the iPhone of a terrorist.

Ray McClure, the uncle of murdered soldier Drummer Lee Rigby has said that Apple is protecting terrorists, and that ‘life comes before privacy’.

I think Drummer Rigby’s uncle is mistaken, both in his assumptions about what Apple is technically capable of, and the moral trade-off between life and privacy.

We need to understand that Apple are not being asked to decrypt just the iPhone of one particular terrorist.  They are not like a landlord with a spare key that will open a particular door.  If they were, then there would be legitimacy in Mr McClure’s complaints.  A judge could examine the particular case at hand, and then sign a warrant that permitted entry to the property or decryption of a device.  Targeted surveillance and privacy violations are a legitimate law enforcement tool.

But that is not the request.  Instead, the FBI have asked Apple to hack their entire operating system in such a way that would enable them to by-pass encryption on any iPhone.  Including mine. Continue reading “I Take Full Responsibility For Apple Inc Protecting The Privacy of a Dead Terrorist”

How We Export The Erosion of Human Rights

Whenever I moan about the British Government interfering with and weakening our human rights protections, one thing I usually note is what a terrible example it sets to other countries around the world.  How can we expect other Governments to respect human rights if we do not respect them ourselves.

Here is a concrete example of this problem in action, courtesy of The Guardian.

China introduces its own ‘snooper’s charter’

Defending the law, the Chinese government pointed to legislation proposed in Western nations, such as Britain’s draft investigatory powers bill, which grants similar powers to the UK government.

There is no need to comment further at this point.

Surveillance: It’s not all about you

The Investigatory Powers Bill will be published tomorrow.  The Home Secretary will set out her vision for what snooping powers the security services should have in their tool-box, and also what oversight parliament, the judiciary, and independent ‘watchdogs’ should have over the use of those powers.

I work for English PEN, one of the six organisations leading the Don’t Spy On Us campaign.  Be in no doubt I will be sharing our analysis of the proposed new law and recommendations for improvement.

A constant issue regarding civil liberties (and one that we have discussed before on these pages) is how to convince members of the public to care about human rights when few of us ever actually experience a violation of those rights.  In the past, I have discussed the idea of ‘everyday rights‘ and the notion that, even if we are not tortured or detained, our lives are made marginally worse when our rights are eroded, even in small ways. Continue reading “Surveillance: It’s not all about you”

Surveillance changes the “Psyche of the Community”

When we debate surveillance (whether its CCTV or snooping on our e-mails) the debate is usually framed as a trade off between civil liberties and security.  Its the right to privacy versus the right to be protected from crime.  Often, civil libertarians seek to win the argument by highlighting how the State can be tyrannical, oppressive, corrupt… or unworthy of trust.  Our governments are compared literary dystopias like Airstrip One in Nineteen Eighty-Four or to real-life dictatorships like North Korea.  These arguments are persuasive to some.

But as I have discussed previously, this approach does not persuade everyone.  And by deploying these arguments, civil liberties campaigners actually leave themselves exposed.  What if you do not believe that (say) the UK is as bad as North Korea?  What if you think that, on balance, Teresa May, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe and Robert Hannigan are actually on our side and not out to seize tyrannical control of the people?  All this chat about nefarious government agents acting like the Stasi will simply not persuade. 

When we talk about surveillance, we need to talk about The Observer Effect.  In physics, this is the concept that says that by measuring something, you change it.  And  we’re talking about surveillance, The Observer Effect means that simply by watching someone, you change their behaviour. Continue reading “Surveillance changes the “Psyche of the Community””

Is surveillance chilling child abuse whistleblowers?

Earlier this year, two rather shocking examples of over-reach by the security services were revealed. The police have used controversial powers in the Regulation of Invesigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) to bypass the need to get a warrant before accessing phone records. They were therefore able to snoop on journalists in a bid to unmask whistleblowers. This is a threat to free speech and something a judge would never have signed off on.

The two cases both involved political scandals. The first was the hacking of the Mail on Sunday journalists reporting on the Chris Huhne speeding points scandal. The second was spying on the political editor of The Sun who was reporting on the Andrew Mitchell #Plebgate affair (for once, a pleasing use of the ‘-gate’ suffix since the scandal did involve an actual gate).

Both these cases have outraged journalists and human rights campaigners. It’s an invasion of privacy and discourages free speech. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has made a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights. However, I wonder whether these cases persuade the public at large that there is a problem. Journalists and politicians are among the least trusted professions, so I wonder whether they garner much sympathy. These are not scandals that relate to the lives most people are living.

I’ve argued before that campaigners need to ground their defence of human rights principles in stories that are meaningful to ordinary people. Good recent examples of this approach in action: The Labour Campaign for Human Rights (see here and here) and the Daily Mirror (see here and here).

There is another news story bubbling away at the moment that I think may persuade the public of the dangers of unchecked surveillance, and that is the investigations into alleged child abuse by senior establishment figures including, apparently, a former minister. There were apparently two dossiers about alleged pædophiles presented to Home Secretary Leon Brittan in the 1980s, which have since gone missing. And according to Zac Goldsmith MP, detailed records seized from the notorious Elm Guest House disappeared after they were taken as evidence by the police.

Here’s what I reckon. It’s all conjecture and hypothesis, but I think it’s plausible: I think there must be former policemen and civil servants out there with knowledge of a cover-up. I think that some of them would like to ‘blow the whistle’ and tell the country what they know. But since police-officers are likely to be implicated in a cover-up, we run the risk that they will use RIPA and other surveillance powers to track-down and discredit anyone seeking to tell their story to the media, in confidence.

Potential whistleblowers know this. They have seen how people talking to journalists in the public interest are hounded by the security services.

I think that people who should be speaking up about child abuse today are keeping quiet because of the surveillance of journalists. My sad prediction is that we will one day discover this to be true, and that victims were denied a chance at justice.

Politicians like to say that surveillance keeps us safe, but sometimes, too much surveillance can cause irreparable damage, too.