By Carl Miller
On Monday, I chaired a speech by the shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper at Demos on the challenges of a digital world to our security and our liberty. Yvette's speech, I thought, bravely squared up to a formidable roster of tangled and intricate challenges – from child exploitation on the internet to the private sector use of your data.
The thread running through them all leads to one of the most important questions we face in the UK today: how to find that elusive and precious balance between security and liberty amongst the swirling technological and social change that is happening all around us. This question is fundamental to our thinking at the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos, and cuts across, or at least touches, almost everything that we do. The sharpest end of the question involves the strongest arm of the state: the oversight and accountability of law enforcement and intelligence on the internet.
We don't have the answer yet; neither does the Labour party, the government or frankly anyone. The most important part of Yvette's speech was this exact recognition: business as usual cannot continue. Having proper safeguards to protect the privacy of innocent people will "require major reform of oversight and a serious review of the legal framework too – as both are out of date as a result of changing technology". Nick Clegg echoed this exact call a day later.
A change, and possibly a big change, to how we oversee intelligence is now becoming very likely in the next few years. In 2012, I wrote #intelligence with Sir David Omand, the former director of GCHQ. We also pointed out that technological change, and the rapid adoption of social media above all, was putting a grinding and distorting pressure on legal frameworks that weren't designed to take their weight. The main law in this area – the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act – indeed, was drafted before Facebook was a gleam in Mark Zuckerberg's eye.
Of course, criticising old laws is the easy part; knowing what comes next is far more difficult. The last attempt to update intelligence laws in the face of technological change – the communications data bill, crashed into a wall after the Lib Dems withdrew support. It got caught in something I predict will become more of a problem as technological development becomes faster and faster: legal future-proofing. You can't go back to parliament every year to update primary legislation – so you need to build law that will last. But society and technology now changes so fast that the future is very hard to predict, and demands laws so broad and malleable it is very hard to see on the drafting board how they would actually be used.
Like Snowden or loathe him, one thing the scandal has shown is how little the public understands the work, role, or purpose of the intelligence agencies, and how important that understanding is as we move to an age where we expect to hold government – all parts of Government, including law enforcement and security – to some kind of effective public account. We have to think harder and more creatively about how the 'sphere of secrecy' that has surrounded and cloaked the clandestine bits of government can be responsibly punctured; how civic society can do their job of holding the powerful to account without stopping the intelligence services doing theirs. To my mind, there are two ways this can be done:
Lifting things out sphere of secrecy: Of course, details about missions, operations, sources and methods often do need to be kept secret in order to be effective. But some parts of intelligence work don't, and they do need to be lifted into public life: the principles and aims of the service, their overall place within the government, routinely available answerable authorities (in addition to the head) when there are public objections and complaints, and certainly a better idea of the kinds of threats they exist to protect us from and how these are changing.
Lifting people in to the sphere of secrecy: This is more radical: making normal people, even randomly chosen people, part of the actual machinery of oversight. To a very large extent the whole of intelligence is populated with establishment insiders – whether intelligence officials, MPs, judges or the military. Many of these are consummate professionals and highly competent, of course, but they do tend to have common backgrounds and values. Truly maintaining public trust in intelligence work needs, in my view, new structures that involve the full spread of values and experiences that you find on any street or any house. This would – whether as a surveillance jury, a people's tribunal or public scrutiny panel – create completely new structures that entail a great many new costs and difficulties. But, somehow, a broader representation of views and backgrounds in intelligence oversight needs to happen.
So, no answers yet, but some promising possibilities. We will be working with Sir David Omand in the months ahead to put some new ideas on the table for policy makers: watch this space.