Security versus Liberty?
Edward Snowden divided opinion around the world when he leaked classified American intelligence to the media in 2013. Regarded by some as a traitor and others as a hero, his actions nonetheless opened up a debate over the limits of government surveillance and individual liberty.
The debate is not new. George Orwell famously warned against the Big Brother state in his book Nineteen Eighty-Four, and his predictions came chillingly close to realisation in East Germany during the Cold War, when the Stasi had 'one informer per 6.5 citizens'* . On the other hand, the nature of security threats faced by western countries in the 21st century means that intelligence gathering is more important than ever.
"The idea of surveillance makes a lot of sense at the strategic level. You have limited resources and capability, and a high level of potential threat."
"No matter where you draw the line it will always change because it's an ethical problem", says Kevin Bampton, Head of Law and Criminology at the University. "It's about the least bad outcome and that has to be judged on a case-by-case basis. The idea of surveillance makes a lot of sense at the strategic level. You have limited resources and capability, and a high level of potential threat."
Mick Creedon, Derbyshire's Chief Constable, points to three tests set out by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act: "Is it lawful, necessary and proportionate? Whilst sometimes the public may have concerns, as a police officer I am accountable to the law and so long as these tests are properly met, it's absolutely right to carry out surveillance. The public would expect that if we think someone is a paedophile grooming and potentially abusing kids, for example, then we’ll be on their email, social media, looking at their mobile phone usage and tracking where their car is going."
However, an over-emphasis on surveillance can be counter-productive when it comes to terrorism, warns Paul Weller, the University’s Professor of Inter Religious Relations. "If particular groups feel highly targeted then you risk losing the community cooperation needed for effective early interventions of a kind that might be positioned to re-channel the often idealistic ends of those who are seduced to violent means. We need a dialogue that engages with those groups who might have some credibility with those attracted to terror – providing they disavow violence."**
Kevin is unconvinced: "It’s a nice idea to say we’ll all have an open dialogue, but the majority of people in terror recruiting, for instance, are very adept at keeping on the right side of the debate in public. All you're doing is giving them a platform."
"Is it lawful, necessary and proportionate? Whilst sometimes the public may have concerns, as a police officer I am accountable to the law and so long as these tests are properly met, it's absolutely right to carry out surveillance."
"Terror that draws its inspiration from religion can be particularly dangerous", says Paul. "It’s too simplistic to say that recent acts of terrorism have nothing to do with religion – they do – and the danger is that what is a very complex conflict in Syria, for instance, could get transplanted onto the streets of Britain. But we do need to draw a distinction between 'extremism' and 'violent extremism'. Sometimes it’s good to be radical and perhaps our society needs a strong critique from minorities of all kinds."
"What we're seeing now is the radicalisation of individuals from afar", Mick points out. "You don't have to go to an overseas training camp anymore; people have been radicalised in their bedroom on the internet and sadly sometimes those who seek to radicalise prey on those who might be vulnerable and easily influenced. We need people who think differently and sometimes challenge us, but to take radical thought to the next level and commit a crime – and even mass murder – cannot be right although we also need to be very careful not to stifle freedom of speech."
One of the issues uncovered by Edward Snowden was the US National Security Agency's 'collect it all' approach to data. This seems "utterly impractical" to Mick in the ever growing world of cyberspace and digital communications: "I can see why the public might be concerned if this were going on, but I think it's far better to know who you're looking at and why, and then work out what intelligence, evidence or information you need about them."
Kevin is more relaxed: "It's a robot searching through data, looking for patterns. When you compare that with invasive old-fashioned techniques, such as a wiretap, you'll find it’s a lot less intrusive. If you can’t gather intelligence digitally then you are forced to use the old-fashioned intrusive surveillance methods – that’s the biggest threat to liberty."
"We need a dialogue that engages with those groups who might have some credibility with those attracted to terror – providing they disavow violence."
But should we really be worried about the level of state surveillance? Mick notes that, "commercial surveillance is probably far greater and more intrusive than what the state is able to do, and they do it on an industrial basis. The reason supermarkets have store cards is not about being nice, it's to track our shopping. They know exactly what we're doing – and we’re okay with it."
Kevin agrees: "We kind of expect to have privacy from the state but not from companies like Google or Facebook. I think we've also reconfigured our idea of liberty around a more public way of living. Social media is not private, it's communication by megaphone."
Should such companies be legally compelled to cooperate with the security services? "I think the answer is, ultimately, yes" says Mick. "For me, a condition of a company's activity in a country should be, with the right level of authority and the appropriate legal application, to hand over the data."
Kevin believes that companies that sell technology that could be used for criminal purposes should have to justify whether they are doing something socially useful. "It's a bit like selling guns. There's probably a need for guns somewhere, but should they be held accountable and have restrictions on their sale? I think most people would say yes."
Is there any truth in the saying "if you’ve got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear"? "In truth, I’d say so, yes", says Mick. "I think having a legally based and transparent framework that has the right authority, checks and balances, and scrutiny, is quite different from a Big Brother society. In the UK policing in this area is overseen by the Office of Surveillance Commissioners, the applications and product can and is tested in Court and the public should be reassured by what we do to protect those who others seek to harm. I don't think for one minute we should be routinely monitoring 60 million people."
*John O. Koehler, Stasi: The Untold Story of the East German Secret Police (Boulder, CO, 1999), reproduced at https://www.nytimes.com/ books/first/k/koehler-stasi.html; accessed 23 April 2015.
** For more information see ‘Deradicalization by Default: The Dialogue Approach to Rooting out Violent Extremism’, Dialogue Society (2009), reproduced at http://www.dialoguesociety.org/publications/ Deradicalisation-Policy-Paper.pdf; accessed 5 May 2015.
Get in touch
If you have any feedback or an idea for a feature or interview, we'd love to hear from you. Send us an email: firstname.lastname@example.org