Comment: Only a fool could trust in the 'oversight' provided by the intelligence committee

Tim Farron: 'Our democratic oversight has rescinded to the point of extinction'
Tim Farron: 'Our democratic oversight has rescinded to the point of extinction'

By Tim Farron

For almost six months The Guardian and other media outlets have been steadily working to inform us of the scale and reach of the digital surveillance programs operated by the 'FiveEyes' intelligence community (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, UK, USA).

Every email, every tweet, every photo. Your entire digital footprint. All instantly accessible at the click of a button, without recourse to a higher authority. This pervasive surveillance of our entire digital lives has been allowed to take place without prior knowledge, debate or consent.

The power of these tools cannot help but aid those who work to protect our country. The intelligence community argues that these extensive powers are required to keep us safe, that they are only used to prevent terrorist atrocities. I find it difficult to be re-assured by their statements.


Karl Popper wrote that "only freedom can make security more secure". I want the security services to be able to read the emails of suspect terrorists and work to tackle the stratospheric rise of organised cyber crime. But I want those powers to be regulated by the well established legal safeguards which protect individuals from coercive state power, not be given away carte blanche, allowing deliberate back door vulnerabilities to be created and contractors to roam through my browsing history.

Our democratic process is built upon a system of checks and balances. Those who exercise power over the individual are held to account by others. For all the faults of the Westminster bubble (and there are many), the quiet revolution in the way select committees are run has done wonders for our flagging parliamentary process. Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth in the case of the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), the body charged with supervising the work of the UK's secret services.

The ISC is a group of the great and good. Experienced hands. 'Sound men' as Sir Humphrey might put it. Their loyalty to the Crown unquestionable, ultimate discretion assured. These are the eight men and one woman in whom we entrust the protection of our liberties and ask to justify the tracking of every single digital activity we undertake.

I don't mean to criticise the members of the committee, which include my good friend Sir Menzies Campbell. It is difficult to objectively assess the nature of their work, given the very secrecy which surrounds it. And it is this very secrecy which condemns the ISC and the powers they regulate.

No-one is naive enough to expect state secrets to be discussed publically in front of a TV audience. But only a fool would think we are re-assured by the appearance of a mandarin quietly saying 'trust me, everything is alright'. When the programs systemically collecting your personal information are so secret that even the Cabinet are not aware of their existence, our democratic oversight has rescinded to the point of extinction.

It's time we had a real debate, one that has so far been denied to the British people. We need to reach an agreement on what rights and protections we have in the digital world and what we can expect our governments to do to uphold them.

We don't have any time to lose. The EU has already begun drafting a new set of data protection regulations, expanding and reinforcing the right of European citizens. Britain needs to decide how it will treat her citizens online and start re-building trust in the democratic oversight of our security services.

Tim Farron is the president of the Liberal Democrat and MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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