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May 23, 2013 | Jim Killock

Capitalising on tragedy

Yesterday's events in Woolwich were appalling, but Lord Carlile and John Reid wasted no time in attempting to use this atrocity in justifying a return to reductions in personal privacy and other human rights.


Lord Carlile said on Newsnight:

We have to learn proportionate lessons from what has occurred.

We mustn't rush to judgment. But we must ensure that the police and the security services have for the future the tools they need which will enable them to prevent this kind of attack taking place.

I hope that this will give the Government pause for thought about their abandonment for example of the Communications Data Bill and possibly pause for thought about converting control orders into what are now called Tpims, with a diluted set of powers.

According to ITN:

Labour ex-home secretary Lord Reid said such measures were "essential" to combating terrorism, warning it could otherwise take "some huge tragedy" to show the decision was wrong.

It is highly difficult to know how useful the CDB would or could be for detection of serious incidents like this, but very frequently, human intelligence turns out to be more effective and useful.

John Reid, by Steve Punter, cc-by

The CDB's central plank involved massive data collection coupled with data mining. Many people such as Bruce Schneier have pointed out that data mining for 'suspicious' but very rare patterns will return 'false positives' just because of their rarity; improving the tightness of pattern matching on the other hand simply means you miss the incident when it happens.

The best argument that the Home Office put forward for it has been that, when they find someone is suspicious, it is useful to go back through communications records. But that puts us all under suspicion for the times when the police have a suspect, and is already investigating them. How often would such cases really reveal information that was so new that the outcome of a case would be different?

As Peter Sommer pointed out in our Digital Surveillance report, usually other quite mundane kinds of activity, such as gathering resources and planning with others, are what reveals the criminal's hand.

Lord Carlile and John Reid have a long history of making calls like this. They are in poor taste, and should be seen for what they are: attempting to take advantage of someone’s death for political advantage. No doubt they are in touch with people in the Home Office who continue to have ambitions for the Snoopers' Charter, but it is unclear that the public are simply going to respond in the way they want.

Rather, these calls are a tactic which can convince fearful and risk-averse politicians into doing the wrong thing in the name of being able to say they did everything in their power, even if those things are in fact pointless.

Widespread erosions of our rights aren't an acceptable response to people who seek to limit our liberty through violence. Calls like those from Lord Carlile if answered would mirror the outcomes that the perpetrators seek, by overstating their influence on our society, and undermining the legitimacy of our laws. We can only preserve our freedom by protecting it, not by removing it, step by step.

Political leaders including Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband must firmly reject these calls, and reprimand Carlile and Reid for their behaviour.

 

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Comments (4)

  1. Stewie:
    May 23, 2013 at 03:47 PM

    I saw that and was appalled and their cynical attempt to use this awful event to tighten the ridiculous surveillance state a notch further. Nobody from Northern Ireland would have been surprised by anything Reid said.
    Rather than targeting the entire population and destroying free civil society (as has been done) use the Israeli model and profile offenders. Target the communities involved with exceptional measures, and them alone.
    It was perplexing Newsnight did not present a balanced article with alternative opinions from perhaps Shami Chakrabarti and Tommy Robinson.
    It's time we all came out and admitted Islam is a Cult. It should be treated as a Cult. It promotes misogyny, homophobia, discrimination and oppression. There are more than half a dozen countries in the world where we see the true measure of it. Some interesting (and appalling) stats here:
    www.pewforum.org/Muslim/the-worlds-muslims-religion-politics-society-beliefs-about-sharia.aspx

  2. robhogg68:
    May 24, 2013 at 08:56 AM

    And that's just another example of taking advantage of someone's death for political advantage, @Stewie. Targeting the Muslim community would not catch people like David Copeland (the London nailbomber), meanwhile it would stoke anger among those who feel unfairly targeted (either because they are Muslim, and haven't done anything wrong, or because they "look Muslim").

    It would be easy to come up with some interesting (and appalling) stats of Christians promoting misogyny, homophobia, discrimination and oppression (from George W. Bush to the government of Uganda, to the Ku Klux Klan). Meanwhile, this vicious attack was condemned by the Islamic Society of Britain and the Muslim Council of Britain, among others. The vast majority of Muslims, as the vast majority of Christians, just want a decent life.

    Free civil society for just some is not free civil society. The "Israeli model" is a terrible example - extra-judicial assassinations, the apartheid wall, collective punishments and the continuing illegal occupation of Palestinian land. This is what perpetuates violence and hatred. If we want to reduce the risk we face from terrorism, first and foremost we need to address those injustices that fuel it.

  3. Cedric:
    May 24, 2013 at 01:37 PM

    Note by the way that Reid isn't really in touch with law enforcement and counter-terrorism's priorities: "But now people have moved on from mobile phones to internet, email, text, Skype. We don’t have the means of doing what we did six years ago. That is where some of the measures the government has refused to implement, like data communication [sic], is absolutely essential for effective fighting of terrorism." Besides the fact that what he said is untrue, in fact it's mobile phone IP data that is the one remaining part of the CDB that made it into the Queen's speech.

    FWIW I agree with everything Robhogg says. Counter-terrorism activity here already distinguishes between Islam and "radical Islam", seeking to prevent "radicalisation", which unfortunately can be hard itself to distinguish from any other kind of political activity. Dropping that word, and concentrating more on individuals (regardless of religion) who not only use specific violent language but also have no preventative factor against violence, would seem more sensible. I don't see how communications data would help there, although human intelligence might.

    Carlile said something about CD probably not helping in this case, and you can't draw conclusions from isolated incidents, but he wasn't shy about getting involved in this part of the media reaction when the dead soldier had only just been named. We should try to resist drawing general conclusions.

  4. Pete:
    May 24, 2013 at 01:59 PM

    Given the suspects in this case were apparently known to the Security Services, this would seem to be yet another example the Home Office would do better to avoid repeating.
    The Security Services already have powers to intercept the communications of suspects, and apparently they weren't used in this instance, or else didn't yield anything that was identified as a security threat.
    Other specific examples used by the Home Office in the past... the case of Levi Bellfield (of whom Assistant Chief Constable Jerry Kirkby said, "Questions will be asked whether Bellfield could have been caught and we must accept, and do, that mistakes were made") or Ian Huntley (a suspect in a series of sexual offences and burglaries who was allowed to work in a school) likewise suggest that the problem is not lack of information... but a failure to use conventional intelligence and existing policing powers effectively.
    Sadly.



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