It is the topic that they don’t want us to discuss. When it came up in the Joint Committee on the Investigatory Powers Bill there was a desperate attempt to shoot the messenger, William Binney, as an alternative to the debating his message.
The Joint Committee on which I served heard compelling evidence that collecting everyone’s data all of the time is counter-productive and simply means the intelligence and security agencies as well as the police have too much data to wade through.
To use the analogy favoured by the Home Secretary, Theresa May, if you are looking for a needle in a haystack and you make that haystack massively bigger, it will mean that sometimes you won’t find that needle.
Evidence from previous terror attacks seems to corroborate this line of thought. In all of the major terror attacks on the west in the last decade the security services were already aware of most of those that committed those atrocious attacks. It has been argued that we need to be smarter about the data we collect and dedicate more resources to following up the leads we already have rather than trying to pin down news ones by collecting and storing everyone’s data.
The UK appears to be the only Western liberal democracy that is moving in this direction with the proposals such as Internet Connection Records (ICRs) and personal bulk datasets. For the record, each of the Committees that have looked into these proposals has been unable to figure out what ICRs actually are or how they would actually work. When we questioned the Home Secretary about this she, too, was unable to give us a clear answer.
Canada and the US have explicitly said they would have constitutional difficulties in introducing anything as intrusive as what the UK is looking at; Australia has explicitly prohibited the collection of their citizens’ web histories in recent legislation; and the Danes – well, they introduced something very similar to the Home Office’s proposed ICRs only to ditch it a few years later because it proved to be useless, and just meant their police force was drowning in data.
This isn’t the first time the Home Office has tried to introduce Internet Connection Records. In 2012, you’ll remember the Home Office brought forward the draft Communications Data Bill that had similar proposals – at that time they called them web logs.
The Liberal Democrats said then that they were disproportionate and that remains the case today. This time round, the Home Office have produced an operational case for ICRs but neither the Joint Committee nor the ISC are convinced the case has been made and in fact on all of the bulk powers both Committees have urged the government to put forward a proper case.
These are some of the most intrusive powers proposed in the western world, but so far there seems to be a built-in assumption that mass surveillance is the only way forward. The evidence we heard in our Committee from William Binney, a former senior NSA official, and others have argued that mass surveillance hinders more than it helps and treats innocent people going about their daily lives as suspects whose every move, thought and action must be collected and stored.
There needs to be a debate as to whether bulk works and whether it really is worth it. The Home Secretary will argue that terrorists want to destroy our way of life and so we must hunt them down and stop them. I fully agree with that, but should we give up the very same hard won freedoms and liberties that we’re fighting to protect in order to do that? Doesn’t that mean they’ve already won?