The intelligence services must explain their actions, argues Isabella Sankey

Benjamin Franklin once spoke of the perils of sacrificing precious liberty for a little temporary security. His words have a powerful resonance following the saga of state surveillance exposed in recent weeks.

By Civil Service World

01 Jul 2013

The Draft Communications Data Bill threatened to consign online confidentiality to history. When businesses, politicians and technology experts recognised the proposal as a gross intrusion into our lives, the plans unravelled under scrutiny. Yet now it seems that authorities on either side of the Atlantic were at it all along – indulging in even more intrusive snooping via the back door, away from oversight and legal safeguards. Revelations continue, but it appears that GCHQ has been routinely intercepting emails and phone calls routed in and out of the country. It also appears to have outsourced domestic surveillance to its US counterparts. On both counts, it seems to have had a fanciful interpretation of the law that will not withstand a challenge under human rights legislation.

This has huge implications for anyone who uses the internet or believes in democracy, freedom and the rule of law. Think about it: the content of your emails; Facebook posts; Tweets; browser history – all examined without public debate, parliamentary approval or legislative authority.

The temptation to watch people this closely is understandable. The first duty of government is to protect, and the work of our security agencies is vital. But mass monitoring of the entire population is a seismic shift in the nature of society, transforming us all from citizens into suspects.

No-one is arguing for a wholly un-policed internet. But targeted surveillance based on individual suspicion is one thing, and blanket snooping quite another. You wouldn’t install cameras in every bedroom in the land on the basis that they might one day become crime scenes.

It is time for GCHQ and ministers to explain their actions. Legislation – left hopelessly outdated by advances in technology – needs urgent updating. We also need a fundamental shift in the thinking of an intelligence community that now appears dangerously out of control. Yes, it is tasked with protecting us; but it must not, in so doing, squander the hard-won freedoms by which we have so long been defined.

Isabella Sankey is director of policy at human rights pressure group Liberty

Share this page