LibLink…Paddy Ashdown: NSA surveillance: who watches the watchers?

Paddy Ashdown has been writing in the Guardian about what he considers should be the key principles underpinning any state intrusion into our communications, online or otherwise. First of all, he tackled the “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” argument:

We have recently been told, even by those charged with overseeing the extent of state intrusion in our lives, that citizens who are not breaking the law have no cause to be concerned about intrusion into their private lives.

Wrong point. The right one is: if governments never broke the law, citizens would have no cause to be concerned. But no government can make such a promise either for itself, or for its successors. And no citizen should believe them if they did.

Then he outlines the safeguards needed before people’s data is intercepted:

First, that this power is used specifically and in an individually targeted manner. Fishing expeditions are not allowed. Nor is it permitted to hoover up the communications of all citizens, or all citizens in a specific class – Muslims, for instance, or EDL members, for that matter – on the off-chance that those who protect us might stumble across something of interest, or which might possibly be of interest at some time in the future.

Second, the power to intrude into our privacy must be based on evidence – not just vague suspicion or statistical probability – that we are behaving, or about to behave, illegally. And third, granting this power must be subject to a warrant given by a third party, preferably a judge, but possibly a minister responsible to parliament who is outside the organisation seeking the right to intrude.

These are the safeguards which were in use when the state was steaming open letters. They were the same principles which were applied when state intrusion extended to telephones. Of course, now those who would threaten our security have moved to new forms of communication, such as email and Skype, the state must have the power to follow them there, too. No sensible citizen would want to deny the state the ability to go where the serious law-breakers can go. But no one would permit this to happen unless that power remained subject to the same safeguards as before.

It is not the widening of the field of intrusion that is objectionable here, it is the weakening of the safeguards that should be in place to control it.

He also says that Labour breached those principles when they were in power:

The problem is that this crucial dam was breached when the last Labour government allowed the intelligence organisations the power to vacuum up all types of what were then the most modern forms of communication in direct and flagrant breach of all these principles – instead of collecting information on individuals based on evidence of guilt, they permitted the collection of information on everyone, guilty or not. No evidence required; no need for warrants to be applied for. Now we are told – including by those who were ministers when this law was brought in – that all we need to do to make ourselves safe is to update the current law to cope with even newer new technologies.

Mark Pack made an interesting point in relation to Paddy’s comments and what a list of the websites you visit says about you:

What’s more, whilst it used to be the case that – for example – knowing who you had called from a telephone revealed far less about you than the contents of the phone call, these days the network of who you have communicated with online and which websites you have visited reveals so much about you, that even the difference of degree which Paddy Ashdown talks about is far less than it was. A list of all the website domains you have visited gives a far greater degree of intrusion into your life than a list of phone numbers called ever used to.

You can read Paddy’s article in full here.

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