Mass surveillance is not the answer

After every terrorist attack opponents of mass surveillance –such as I am – are subjected to ridicule by people who insist that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. They sneer, and they flail in utter incredulity; how can you possibly be against mass surveillance after the Paris attacks?

They dismiss me as a fool for opposing the snooper’s charter and are ready and willing to believe that the security services need the ability to spy on every one of us in order to keep us safe.

It frightens me how little people seem to value their freedom, and how utterly ignorant they are as to why the arguments for mass surveillance are so weak, and why people who have nothing to hide certainly do have something to fear when the state grants itself vast new powers.

Time and time again over the last 15 years the British government has been cynical and reactionary in its response to the threat of terrorism, pushing through illiberal legislation in a climate of fear mongering and paranoia.

The government, the police and even local councils have used and abused these powers to such an extent that the notion if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear has been so thoroughly discredited that no thinking person should ever proliferate it.

Brian Haw, Maya Evans, Steve Jago, John Catt, Charlotte Dennis, Walter Wolfgang, Nick Gargan, Hicham Yezza, Rizwaan Sabir were all innocent people. By the logic of this assertion they should have had nothing to fear, yet all were persecuted with anti-terror legislation, and they are just some of the more high profile cases that represent the tip of an iceberg. There is no logic to this clichéd argument for tyranny, and I am so tired of hearing it.

It is the creed or the ignorant, and the mantra of the slave.

It is time to make a stand and fight back against people who think the debate is closed just because a terrorist atrocity has taken place. Let them make the case for why mass surveillance will prevent such incidents, and let them point to the evidence that shows its effectiveness and how it would make the crucial difference in such a situation. They will not be able to, hence why it is perfectly reasonable for opponents of the snooper’s charter to stand their ground even after the shocking events in Paris.

Defenders of liberty must remember that despite how our enemies portray us, it is we that are being perfectly rational, sensible and reasonable. When the murder of Lee Rigby is hysterically thrown in my face, I have to point out that not only is it difficult to prevent drug addled and deranged dead beats (as the majority of wannabe terrorist actually are) like Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale from acting on their Islamist fantasies, they were both already known to the security services. This is often the case.

The Paris attackers were all known to the French security services – who have greater powers of surveillance than their UK counterparts – yet they were still able to murder 128 people. The truth couldn’t be any clearer, yet more powers for the security services, and the creation of a legal framework for mass surveillance will not prevent terrorist attacks. It will be make us far less free, far less principled and morally just as a country, and yet will not make us safer.

It would be yet another victory for terrorism.

This is the important point, I am not in denial; I know there is a threat from Islamist terrorism. I know that despite the fact that as individuals we are more likely to have a tortoise fall from the sky onto our heads than be victims of terrorism, there is still a tangible risk to British citizens.

I do believe we should use the power and resources of the state and the security services to prevent and punish terrorists. However, mass surveillance is unnecessary, ineffective, illiberal and wrong.

I am not against surveillance per se, it is just clear that trying to spy on everyone is an utterly futile and useless task. Coercing private companies to store our data is a case of overreaching and a major security risk.  And I am firmly against allowing ministers to act as they please and the security services to operate unaccountably.

We need a better strategy that protects freedom while allowing the security services the ability to counter the terrorist threat and keep us safer.

I absolutely agree that they should use surveillance, and all the technological developments available to them, and I would not even necessarily object to increasing their funding. But surveillance must be targeted and aimed specifically against individuals and groups who are under suspicion of criminal activities.

When the police or security services deem this necessary they should have to seek legal warrant from a judge, who will almost certainly authorise it when there is probable cause, as there will generally always be in the cases of Islamists.

The warrant should be time limited so the case can be reviewed and the warrant extended when necessary. This is proper judicial oversight that protects the freedom of the individual and places appropriate restraints on state power.

I believe that it is also time for Britain to join the US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa in putting the material gathered from surveillance to more effective use. We should change the law so that intercept evidence is permissible in court, it is ludicrous that we ban its use when it could be so effective in the war on terror.

Intercept evidence removes the necessity of so many other draconian measures, from internment to control orders, introduced precisely because the intelligence that renders a monitored individual a suspect cannot be used in a UK court to prosecute them. Intercept evidence will help bring terror suspects to a fair trial where justice can be done in the proper way.

The use of an anti-terror law that allows for extended penalties for acts performed as part of an ongoing criminal organisation would also be an effective tool. Where suspects can be proven to be part of an ongoing terrorist conspiracy; inciting and/or organising terrorist acts, planning, fund raising, recruiting etc. life sentences should be handed out with the promise of reduced sentences only for those who plead guilty and testify against their accomplices. Such a law could dismantle and prevent the growth of terrorist groups in the UK.

Yes, we have to combat terrorism with all of our strength and resources, but we can give the security services the effective tools they need, and change the law when necessary, without abolishing liberty. If we believe British values are under threat, then we have to defend those values staunchly, not destroy them ourselves before terrorists get the chance.

The case for conserving British liberty and ensuring this country remains a fair, free and open society has not changed since the Paris attacks, nor will it after the next atrocity. We must stand our ground, proudly.


Ben is a writer, editor and Brexit campaigner. He advocates a counter-revolution to achieve the restoration of constitutional liberty and national independence. He blogs at The Sceptic Isle. Follow him on Twitter: @TheScepticIsle

Follow @con4lib on Twitter

Like Conservatives for Liberty on Facebook

The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty