Feature: Is safety worth the price?

The government has put forward controversial legislation which would radically alter the way terrorism is tackled in the UK. In doing so, the communications data bill has the potential to seriously undermine individual privacy and civil liberties, according to many of the critics who have been very vocal in their opposition.

The bill would transpose an EU Directive into UK law which forces providers to retain electronic data for a period between 6 months and 2 years so authorities can access it if they need to. Measures in the bill would allow law enforcement agencies access to a massive new database with records of every Briton’s electronic communications, such as phone calls, text messages and emails.

Many believe the data base goes too far. The Open Rights Group believes the provisions of the bill would radically alter the relationship between citizens and the state, handing over unprecedented access to people’s personal communications and private lives. Other civil rights groups, such as Liberty, also have strong reservations, with director Shami Chakrabarti calling the proposals “seismic”. Conservative shadow home secretary Dominic Grieve is also feeling wary, saying the database “represents a very profound change in the relationship between the state and the citizen”. It tells you something about the proposals that a Conservative politician uses the same rhetoric as a libertarian group.

The government’s plans – potentially more unpopular than ID cards – have already lead to accusations of a Big Brother state. Britain already has the world’s largest database of citizens’ DNA, with over five per cent of the population on board and over £300 million invested into it. Critics argue the government is surreptitiously trying to expand it to include all UK citizens.

The bill has however been dealt a considerable blow after recent criticism from outgoing director of public prosecutions Sir Ken Macdonald. Macdonald warned Britain’s way of life required defence from a security state and the erosion of freedom by the powers of technology. Decisions made over the next few months and years may be irreversible, he added. The need to strengthen institutions instead of degrading them is a key facet of Macdonald’s argument, and he pointed to the fact that 90 per cent of terrorist cases result in successful prosecutions – the highest in the “fair trial world”.

Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Chris Huhne echoed Macdonald’s concerns, saying he had “sounded a clarion call for freedom”. He continued: “He is absolutely right to highlight the danger of a Leviathan state that wants to know all and control all about the citizens it should serve and not master.” The Lib Dems point to the misuse of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to tackle very minor offences such as waste dumping and under-age smoking as further evidence of system-creep, where powers are used for measures they hadn’t been intended for.

There are also important issues over the database’s own security. Considering the massive amount of sensitive data which would be on the database, it would be disastrous if anything were lost. The recent case of the Ministry of Defence losing the details of over 250,000 armed forces personnel highlights the administrative incompetence which many feel goes hand-in-hand with the government’s infatuation with data collection.

Telecommunication companies in Britain refused to comment to us on the issue, but they are understood to be less-than-pleased with the idea of installing measures which are unpopular with customers. Companies already keep a record of customer’s communications but they can only release information if a warrant is passed by a judge.

Huge opposition to the bill may stop it being passed by parliament or at least greatly reduce it’s intrusive measures through the various concessions government will be forced to make.

The important question of how far the state should go in reducing freedom while trying to protect the public has raised its head again. Many people will be asking themselves – is my security from terrorism more important than my security from government snooping?

Edward Irby