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Data Privacy and Security

To snoop or not to snoop: UK mulls way to go at crossroads of liberty and security

One of the many consequences of the Edward Snowden affair has been to crystallise the arguments for and against more surveillance and rights for governments and their agencies to track citizens’ computing and communications habits. Here in the UK, a country with a strong liberal tradition and no history of dictatorships, we appear to have reached an inflexion point. Do we now give up chunks of privacy for the greater national security good or do we see this as a crass infringement of our civil rights?

The House of Lords is our second debating chamber, comprised of unelected nobility and those elevated for outstanding achievements. It is intended as a curb on the excesses of elected politicians. However, yesterday the Lords were accused of helping to push through amendments to a Bill that would give the state a free pass to examine pretty well everything we say and write. The debate commenced yesterday and followed on from the Prime Minister, David Cameron, calling for an end to strong encryption services that can’t be unlocked by government security agencies.

By their words shall ye know the two camps. For those against, this is a “snoopers’ charter” with “sweeping” powers of “surveillance” akin to those envisioned by one of our most cherished authors, George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four where Big Brother sees all.  For those in favour this is a necessary “counter terrorism” measure.

For that second camp, Lord King told his peers yesterday that the UK “could easily see a Paris or a Belgium here” and added:

“I make no apology at all for doing this because I think we face a very serious situation indeed at the present time in our country. Our legislation is not up to date to meet it and I think it is the duty of parliament to ensure that it is.”

Generalising slightly, one interesting angle to this debate is that the first camp is often technically-literate or technophile while the second is more technophobe.

Lord King said he was no “master of the internet”.

“I am not a Twitterer. I don’t know about Snapchat or WhatsApp, but the terrorists do,” he added.

Critics who talked of “snooping” were spouting “sanctimonious claptrap”, he added.

Another oddity is that the government is divided on this matter along tribal lines. That is, the Conservative party that gained the most votes at the last general election is generally for the changes but its coalition partner, the centrist Liberal Democrats, are against. Indeed, it’s arguable that one of the few distinctive characteristics of the Liberal Democrats is an abhorrence of secrecy and an emphasis on personal freedoms.

Of course the UK does not exist in a vacuum and a timely new report (PDF) points to ways in which the so-called Five Eyes (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US) can share data on citizens on a partnership model without breaking rules on local privacy rights.

But with tensions high after the Paris atrocities, the Lords debate is emblematic of the situation facing many countries today, at the crossroads of liberty and security.

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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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