Lord Paul Strasburger writes…Government must engage in public debate on surveillance

No reasonable person would deny that our spies should be able to intrude, as deeply as is appropriate, into the affairs of people suspected of the most serious offences.  But this scandal is not about those suspects.  It’s about suspicion-less, untargeted surveillance of the entire population as represented by GCHQ’s Project Tempora.

The real questions I will be asking in the chamber of the House of Lords are:

1.       How have we sleep-walked into a situation where GCHQ is collecting massive amounts of the private data of every innocent citizen without the informed consent of Parliament?

2.      Why won’t the government acknowledge this spectacular failure to prevent disproportionate mass intrusion into our privacy by those who are supposed to oversee the security services?

3.      When will the UK Government stop placing itself in a minority of one by refusing to debate the limits of state surveillance of innocent citizens?

The US government, from the President down, is engaged in a vigorous public debate on what their spies should and should not be allowed to do.  Several Bills are before Congress seeking to answer that question in different ways.  The media in the USA is fully engaged in this debate.  The same is true in Germany, France and other countries.

Meanwhile our Government is in complete denial and refuses point blank to discuss either where the boundaries should be or the collective failure of their much-vaunted but now discredited oversight bodies.

Not only has Parliament not been consulted on this. We now know that the Cabinet was unaware of Tempora until it was revealed by US whistleblower Edward Snowden. We also know that the General Security Council was kept in the dark.

It appears that the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) was also unaware of Tempora, which comes as little surprise. Judging by the its feeble public ‘grilling’ of the three spy chiefs last week, there is little chance that the ISC as presently constituted will ever be able (or willing) to ask the right questions or to hold our spooks to account.  Its members seem to be incapable of understanding the new technologies involved and appear to have no inclination to ask the probing and awkward questions that need to be asked.

The Government must ditch its increasingly absurd assertion that the flawed and hopelessly outdated legislation that is supposed to protect us from unnecessary intrusion is doing its job.

Parliament, the media and the public need to fully discuss how we can rectify this  serious failure of oversight and how the legislation should be updated.  The Government must play a full part in the debate or risk being left behind.


* Lord (Paul) Strasburger is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords

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  • Excellent and appropriate article, which shines a light on one of the most important and intrusive transitions towards a subliminal surveillance society, here in the 21st Century. And what is the result? Zero comments, and zero interest. Astonishing, but not surprising

  • Why is it that our unelected Lords are always so much more on the mark than any of the elected MPs? (I know the answer, but still.)

  • chris j smart 21st Nov '13 - 11:13am

    John Dunn and Liberal Al, spot on. It’s so nice to see “comments” speaking with one voice – however small.

  • Good article well put. People are in favour of surveillance generally, like wanting CCTV cameras everywhere, but it is only when they realise it is prying on the innocent too that they get worried.
    Need word to get out, and look forward to reading Government Response (or they might send directly to me if they are reading this !)

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