The attacks in Paris on Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket reignited the debate about freedom of speech and tolerance for the beliefs of others. One issue that received less attention is how far an open society should surrender freedoms it values highly in the name of security.
An illuminating exchange took place on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on 13th January between presenter Justin Webb and the UK’s Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg. It showed that even at the highest level of government there is a reluctance to offer the public clear views about how to tackle terrorism in the modern world. Part of being a leader involves clarifying complex issues so that the public can understand better the choices they are asked to make.
Mr Clegg refused to answer whether he thinks some conversations on social media should be inaccessible to the security agencies for ever. Vacillating on this crucial point and providing opaque explanations elsewhere, he did not engender a strong sense that he understood many in society are confused, worried and seeking leadership. His reluctance to hold and defend a clear position also implied the government has not debated this issue at length and that confident and considered, albeit conflicting, positions had been taken.
It’s a long post (unedited to provide the overall context) but stick with it; this affects us all. The momentum in the war of ideas currently lies with those that wish us harm.
Justin Webb: Are you happy being in a position of disagreement not just with the Prime Minister but with the head of MI5 as well? The head of MI5 saying recently in his speech his sharpest concern, as he put it, is the gap between the challenging threat and the growing availability of capabilities to address it.
Nick Clegg: So just to be very clear, actually I met the head of MI5 yesterday and I’ve obviously spoken to him and the head of the agencies on numerous occasions. The problem they’ve identified, which is a very real one and one we are acting on, is how to access data, how to, if necessary, on the back of a warrant from the Foreign Secretary or the Home Secretary, intrude on the communications between people who mean to do us harm, even where those communications originate from overseas or foreign internet service providers or communication service providers. That is the thing that the agencies have identified as being the biggest problem. That, by the way, is why we legislated, with my active support earlier in the summer, emergency or fast-track legislation, to kind of fill that gap because there was a problem that, as they put it, a lot of that communication would go dark if we didn’t have access to that data.
JW: But he’s [Andrew Parker – the head of MI5, the UK’s domestic spying agency] still worried about it going dark, without that, in the future and without necessarily that bill. Now, are you comfortable, or did he say to you that he is comfortable with your position on a lack of activity…
NC: Well let’s be clear. The one component of the various measures that have been floated that I have objected to, the so-called snooper’s charter, would do absolutely nothing to deal with this issue of how we, as a country, have access to data which originates overseas but which might relate to people who want to do us harm, because let’s remember what the snooper’s charter was about, was about storing the social media activity and the web sites visited by every single man, woman and child in this country; by everyone, and, by the way, by millions and millions of people, so that’s huge amounts of data…
JW: But not accessing it without a warrant.
NC: No, no, no, but it was about, exactly, but it doesn’t deal with the issue which we are having to grapple with, which is how, for instance, to make sure that your mobile, tablet or your phone is properly related to an IP address, just like your mobile phone is related to a telephone number, which, by the way, is another thing that we have acted on, in fact we’re legislating on as we speak right now. The point I make is that, you know, sometimes people sort of think if we pass the snooper’s charter everyone will be utterly safe and if you don’t pass it everybody utterly unsafe. It isn’t like that.
JW: But that’s not the point Andrew Parker is making.
NC: You have to make a judgment, don’t you, about the balance between security and liberty and the workability of these proposals.
JW: Can I just get this straight. What you are saying is there should be circumstances where people can have entirely private conversations via social media on the internet, that are inaccessible for ever to the security services. That is what you think is important.
NC: No, this has, this is where the great confusion lies, this has nothing to do with, as your question has implied, this has nothing to do with our right, which, of course, we should retain, as a state we always retain the right to steam open envelopes, to listen to telephone conversations…
JW: But that’s what Andrew Parker is saying he can’t do in the future.
NC: As I’m saying, a snooper’s charter is not the answer to that. The snooper’s charter, let’s be very clear, or what was dubbed the snooper’s charter, was one component among several measures, most of which we have acted on in whole or part, let’s repeat because it’s very important this, because I think it does cross a line in my view, it is not a proportionate response to that particular problem and, by the way, many experts say it’s not a particularly workable proposition either. What it would do is it would say that you, every single person listening to this programme now, every website they visit over the last year, every social media interaction they have will be stored by somebody. That doesn’t deal with the issue of how we make sure that when people mean to do us harm, which was the subject, quite rightly, of what the Prime Minister was talking about yesterday, we could retain the ability…
JW: But are you saying it shouldn’t be stored? That’s the point, isn’t it, that there should be some areas that are properly dark forever?
NC: It’s not about dark. It’s about do I think that scooping up vast amounts of information on millions of people, children, grand mothers, grand parents, elderly people who are doing nothing more offensive than visiting garden centre web sites, do I think that is a sensible use of our resources and our time, and does it address the issue which you, quite rightly, identify, the agency, quite rightly identify, which is as technology mutates, as this globalized industry becomes more and more global, how do we make sure that we continue to have the reach into those dark spaces so that terrorists cannot hide from us.
JW: But are you saying we should be able to or we shouldn’t be able to? I’m not understanding from you whether you accept, which some civil libertarians say, we absolutely should have the ability to communicate with each other in a way that is inaccessible, or, as Andrew Parker and others say, no we shouldn’t.
NC: With respect you’re confusing the right that the state has, always has done and should retain…
JW: No, I’m not talking about a right, I’m talking about the practical possibilities of doing it and what Andrew Parker wants is to be given, he thinks he does have the practical possibilities to do it, he wants to be given the right to do it.
NC: Right, let me explain again. The problem of what Andrew Parker calls things going dark, is because so much of the industry on which we depend for communications, particularly modern communications, aren’t located in this country. They are servers on the other side of the planet. They are internet service providers based in California. And the absolute heart of this issue is how do we, given that we can only have jurisdiction over our own affairs in Great Britain, make sure that we work well with those internet service providers so that they give us access to information where that helps to keep us safe. And we’ve done a number of things as I said, we’re actually legislating right now under the new terrorism bill to do that.
JW: I’m still not clear about whether you accept that people should be able to communicate in total privacy or not, just yes or no, should they be or should they not?
NC: Right, the snooper’s charter was nothing to do with…
JW: No, should they be or should they not? Never mind about the snooper’s charter.
NC: Privacy is a qualified right. If someone wants to do us harm we should be able to break their privacy and go after their communications…if you just let me finish the sentence I’ll explain to you why I think you’ve got this confused. The snooper’s charter wasn’t about intercepting communications it was about storing a record of all your social media activity of every website you’ve visited, and here’s the key thing: of every single individual in this country. Of people who would never dream of doing anyone else any harm, who would never dream of becoming a terrorist or even have anything to do with extremist ideologies. So the question we need to ask ourselves, in a free, open society as we defend our values against the abhorrent attacks we saw in Paris, is where do you draw the line? Look, I’ll give you an example. If you want to we could make ourselves a lot safer in this great city of London by imposing a curfew so no-one can leave the house after 9 o’clock. We don’t do that because that would be offensive to our values as a free and open society…[talked over by JW below}
JW: So, one of those values is that we can have conversations in total privacy?
NC: ..and what I’m saying is you strike the right balance, you take the actions to keep us physically safer through the fast-track legislation that we’re already proceeding with, but at the same time you valiantly defend and you are vigilant about things which might encroach on the basic freedom for people to go about their everyday business, particularly if they’re innocent of any wrong-doing whatsoever.