January 13, 2015 | Pam Cowburn

Letters from ORG's Advisory Council members: Mass surveillance is not needed

The following letters by ORG Advisory Council members Paul Bernal and Simon Phipps were published in the Evening Standard on 12 January.


Paul Bernal, lecturer at UEA Law School: 

It is not just libertarians who are dismayed by the growing calls for the return of the Snooper’s Charter in response to events in Paris, but anyone who has studied the reality of recent terrorist atrocities and the role of intelligence and surveillance.

The Charlie Hebdo shooters — just like the murderers of Lee Rigby and the Boston bombing suspects — were known to the authorities, and had been for years, linked with known groups.

Indeed, it seems the French authorities had stopped watching them because of a lack of resources. To devote more of our limited resources to forms of mass surveillance that are ineffective and have significantly damaging side effects in terms of liberty, rather than towards targeted intelligence, is not just counter-intuitive but likely to be directly counter-productive. Do not let our understandable fear and horror as a result of a hideous attack allow ourselves to be led down this path.

Paul tweets at 

Simon Phipps, open source and digital rights consultant:

I watch with alarm as, in the wake of the barbaric murders in France, politicians seek increased surveillance powers for the security services.

Surveillance is not always wrong; far from it, our democracy has long allowed accountable public servants to temporarily intrude on individuals they believe to be a threat.

My alarm arises for two reasons: first, the powers requested in recent attempts at new law are open-ended and ill-defined. They lack meaningful oversight, transparency or accountability. They appear designed to permit the security services free rein in making their own rules and retrospectively justifying their actions.

Second, the breadth of data gathered, far beyond the pursuit of individuals, creates a risk of future abuse, by both (inevitable) bad actors and people responding to future moral panic. Today’s justifications – where offered – make no accommodation for these risks.

Voters should listen respectfully but critically to the security services’ requests. Our representatives must ensure that each abridgement of our liberties is ring-fenced, justified objectively using public data, governed with impartial oversight and guarded by a sunset clause for both the powers and all its data by-products.

If the defence of free speech fatally erodes other liberties we are all diminished.

Simon tweets at @webmink

These letters were originally published in the London Evening Standard.