Huppert warns against “sleepwalking into a surveillance society”

huppert_caption compIt’s become a truth universally acknowledged in the Liberal Democrats that wherever there is a threat to our freedoms, Julian Huppert will be there trying to thwart it, whether that’s convenient for the party leadership or not.  Most of the time, it has to be said, it is convenient for the leadership, but it’s worth remembering that if it hadn’t been for the combination of him and some angry bloggers, we might be in a world where the Communications Data Act of 2012 had been passed.

And so it was on Thursday in Westminster Hall when he c0-sponsored a long overdue parliamentary debate on intelligence and security. He’d set out his case in an article for the Guardian’s Comment is Free site on Wednesday, writing about how we needed to rebalance liberty and security in light of the NSA leaks. He wrote:

British politicians must step up and discuss an issue that is crucial now and will only loom larger in the coming years, as more and more information becomes electronic, and the ability to collect it, store it and analyse it grows rapidly. We need to discuss publicly what we think the rules should be for state surveillance, how it should be controlled, and what the limits must be.

He explained why our current oversight is insufficient:

We have minimal oversight of what is being done in our name. Parliament passed extremely broad legislation, giving almost completely free rein for information to be collected. The intelligence and security committee, which is supposed to examine the policy and operations of the agencies, consists of a small number of parliamentarians, handpicked by the prime minister, and includes ex-ministers who effectively scrutinise their own past decisions. It is not clear to me they all understand the technical capabilities they are supposed to comment on.

We have to fix our legislation urgently. One central piece, Ripa, is known to be broken – it was used to allow council officials to find out whether families lived in school catchment areas. Others give the secretary of state sweeping and authoritarian powers, with the limits of that power kept secret. We should also create a new, beefed-up body including more independent people to scrutinise what is happening, based on Obama’s privacy and civil liberties oversight board.

This was pretty much the basis of his speech in the debate the following day. Of course, there were Tory and Labour MPs and ex ministers queueing up to suggest that the real villain was not the intelligence services who were just keeping us safe, but the Guardian, for being so irresponsible as to tell us about it. Julian saw that argument off:

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that it would be irresponsible to publish hundreds of thousands of documents without having a look at them. That is why I am so glad that that is what The Guardian has explicitly not done. It has taken a responsible approach and managed to prevent that. We can imagine what could have happened if there had been a WikiLeaks-style publication. The hon. Gentleman should be concerned about the fact that a contractor was able to get hold of all the information, and that is a serious failure from the NSA and a great disgrace. If it cannot protect information to that level of security, it should be very worried. There are, I think, 850,000 people who could have had access to that information. Was the NSA certain that none of them would pass it on to a foreign power? Frankly, passing it on to The Guardian is probably about the safest thing that could have happened to it.

He tackled the “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” argument and laid out why it’s important that we get this right in economic terms.

 People say, “If you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear.” I suggest that they say that to the green activists infiltrated by the police or to members of the Lawrence family. Human behaviour changes when people know that they are being watched. Is that the world in which we want to live?

There is also an economic issue. Our actions are hitting our own economic interests. The internet is a huge factor in business here—some £110 billion of GDP. It is a dynamic market, and it can move. If people are concerned about the privacy of their data here, whether their personal information or important company secrets, they will simply move where they store that information. Germany is already launching schemes to encourage businesses to go there instead, with e-mail systems that guarantee that no data will leave German boundaries while e-mails are being sent, so there is not the problem of information going overseas and coming back again to be looked at. That will hit us financially, regardless of anything else.

Martin Horwood, whose constituency includes GCHQ, spoke in defence of the staff there:

There is a degree of anger at GCHQ and among my constituents. People at GCHQ understand that there will inevitably be some misunderstanding of what they do, because it is not very public, and that there may be some naivety and inaccuracy. However, they find it difficult to forgive the accusations of bad faith and illegality. Their perception is that they operate under one of the most exacting sets of laws and systems of ministerial and independent oversight applied to any intelligence agency anywhere in the world.

Of course, there are things that will remain secret, and there are things that are done that would surprise us if they became public. Hon. Members have referred to the interception of Angela Merkel’s mobile phone communications by the NSA. I find that very surprising, although anyone who knows West German intelligence history will know that the Federal Chancellor’s office has not always been the most secure place. I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) could find similar stories of insecurity in unexpected places.

While he recognised the need for what he called “further refinement” of oversight, he argued:

There is an issue there, and perhaps there is further refinement and definition of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s work to be done. However, if we are to find needles in a haystack, we need to allow people to look at the haystack. We need to accept that there is a balance to be struck between access and surveillance, but that access is an important part of that balance.

The whole debate, which you can read here, did little to reduce my anxiety. It seems that genuinely liberal voices, bothered about ensuring that the state values its citizens’ privacy, are very much in the minority. And while the electorate don’t appear to be bothered, getting exercised instead about fabricated scare stories about immigration and the EU, liberals face an uphill struggle. Persuading the public of the actual threats to their freedom and why it matters has never been more important.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Peter Andrews 2nd Nov '13 - 12:22pm

    Too late we have just woken up to find out that the extent of snooping into private lives by government bodies (i.e. GCHQ) was not a nightmare. We should be urgently pushing for a massive reform of the oversight of GCHQ and the powers they have to snoop without a warrant or even any just cause.

  • “It’s become a truth universally acknowledged in the Liberal Democrats that wherever there is a threat to our freedoms, Julian Huppert will be there trying to thwart it …”

    The depressing thing is how rarely the same can be said of other Liberal Democrat parliamentarians.

  • Melanie Harvey 2nd Nov '13 - 1:08pm

    The problem it seems more to me at least presently is, the surveyor is in deed now ,the one being surveyed and guess what, they dont like it..
    Respects people change when they know they are being watched, is purely because they are aware they know the truth can be twisted to suit certain agendas. Experience of court rooms being a prime example and why certain miscarriages of justice occur. It is not just what it is but how it is interpreted that adds the dangers. The words a little knowledge is a dangerous thing springs to mind, ignorance is better than wrong information in a lot of instances.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 2nd Nov '13 - 1:08pm

    I expect that it will get no worse with us in government, but it needs to get better.

    However, we have done loads for civil liberties – Comms data, ending child detention, getting rid of ID cards, and the like. Secret courts is a massive negative but at least we’ve learned.

  • David Evans 2nd Nov '13 - 1:58pm

    @ Caron “Secret courts is a massive negative but at least we’ve learned.” I know what I have learned and it has a lot more to do with the leader refusing to listen to the party than anything else. But what else has been learned?

  • Stuart Mitchell 3rd Nov '13 - 12:00pm

    “Frankly, passing it on to The Guardian is probably about the safest thing that could have happened to it.”

    This would be the same Guardian that published the passwords to the unredacted “Wikileaks cables” in 2011. Their idea of being careful with the Snowden data was to allow the Brazilian toy boy of one of their journalists to carry it around the world on a laptop; all the UK border authorities had to go to get him to reveal the passwords was use scary words like “station” (see If the professional spooks were that incompetent, all this data would have been out in the public domain long ago.

  • Martin Pierce 3rd Nov '13 - 5:24pm

    Very proud that he is my MP. But I also have to agree with Chris. Julian shouldn’t have to be a one-person campaign on these subjects – though make that two in the case of Secret Courts, Mike Crockert also right up there on that one where the two of them did absolute best on the Committee stage. But you can only get so far if your Leader just isn’t going to make it an issue, something I still don’t understand from Nick and others – civil liberties should all just be instinctive for Liberal Democrats. It’s not something that can or should be traded away as part of the give and take of coalition, this is line-in-the-sand stuff – or should be.

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