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Battle lines being drawn in UK surveillance debate

February 25, 2009

securitystrategybannerThe UK’s Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), the influential think-tank that was behind the New Labour project, has released a report on intelligence and national security that argues that privacy and human rights will have to take second place in the War on Terror. The report, National Security Strategy, Implications for the UK Intelligence Community, is written by former civil service security and intelligence coordinator, David Omand, is part of the IPPR’s Commission on National Security in the 21st Century, whose rather unimpressive launch event I attended last year.

The Guardian newspaper’s story on this is trying to build this up into an ‘end of privacy’ / ‘end of civilisation as we know it’ story and Omand certainly comes down firmly on the side of security over liberty. He recognises that his arguments are contrary to ours and go “against current calls to curb the so-called surveillance society.” But he is not actually making a total ‘by any means necessary’ argument. Even the Guardian’s own report quotes his rather qualified statement that “in some respects [new intelligence methods] may have to be at the expense of some aspects of privacy rights.”

The report is simply not as strong or even as interesting as The Guardian‘s story suggests. Most of it is simply a description of how intelligence works (and not even a very comprehensive or insightful one at that). Much, as we predicted in our recent book (see My Publications), it tries to set the creation of ‘resilience’ as a key rationale for reducing civil liberties, as if resilience in itself was a good thing that needed no justification when in fact it is being used as a bland container for all sorts of questionable policies – from the use of torture and imprisonment without trial to the everyday use of intrusive high-tech surveillance. The references to the political controversies over surveillance are rather cursory and don’t really say much other than that people are worried and really they shouldn’t be. These are just the usual ‘trust us, we know what we are doing’ and ‘these are exceptional circumstances’ arguments that we have heard many times before, and they are as weak and old-fashioned coming from Omand as from anyone else.

It is worth noting that there appears to be a gathering of forces and a drawing of battle lines amongst the ‘big beasts’ of security policy in the UK. I reported yesterday on David Blunkett’s conversion to the cause of limiting surveillance society, and a few days ago, Stella Rimington, the former Head of the Security Service, MI5, condemned the current government’s approach to liberty and security in even stronger terms, arguing that the approach that Omand typifies would lead to ‘a police state’.

Surveillance has finally become an issue on which it is becoming less possible to be unengaged, apathetic or even neutral. That in itself is a good thing, however it does not guarantee a good outcome even if more major public figures suddenly discover their enthusiasm for liberty once they leave office. However, I hope this reflects a split which is growing within the current government too – normally when retired politicians and civil servants speak out, they are conscious of the way in which they speak on behalf of friends and colleagues who feel they cannot be so candid.

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