The nature of the British state and the government’s contempt for personal freedom come to a head with new laws proposed for the Queen’s Speech next month. It was already known that the government intended to bring forward a law to allow the police and MI5/6, without a warrant, to access data from every phone call, email, text message and internet browsing. Now the government is proposing to add secret courts to total surveillance.
It will extend closed procedures used in certain terrorism-related immigration appeals to any civilian trials where ministers decide evidence is too sensitive to be disclosed, even where they are themselves defendants. The East German Stasi would have been proud of such a totalitarian constraint on freedom and removal of the powers of the State from scrutiny. But the motives behind these new measures are deeply sinister.
The government defence of secret justice is based on patently spurious claims that the justice system puts national security at risk. It derives from lobbying from the security services who argue that some evidence disclosed in the Binyam Mohammed and other Guantanamo cases was based on material supplied by the CIA who have now demanded that this channel be blocked from disclosure in future. But this is not a matter at which national security is being put at risk, only the reputation of Ministers who colluded in the abduction and torture of terrorism suspects under the US (and UK?) rendition programme after 9/11. The complicity of Ministers in all sorts of unsavoury and improper activities in future will be able to be blotted out from public scrutiny.
There is also the very real likelihood that measures allegedly addressed at terrorism and security issues will be deployed for totally other purposes in non-threatening contexts, for example to conceal details of police involvement in deaths in custody or in control of demonstrations or in wholly inappropriate undercover policing. The function creep that led to the spread of surveillance under Labour’s Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act ended up, almost unbelievably, in local authority under-cover operations against fly-tippers and parents cheating over school applications! Similarly section 44 of the 2003 Counter-Terrorism Act was used to eject an aged heckler of Jack Straw at a Labour Party conference.
The same could well apply to the warrant-less intrusion into all internet use. The government claims that all the authorities want to know is who is calling whom, not the content of the messages. Pull the other one! Quite apart from the inordinate intrusiveness, impracticality and cost of such a gargantuan exercise, it defies belief that the State will not very soon extend this foothold into accessing the content of messages – ‘in the interests of national security’ of course – in order to hamstring strikes, demonstrations, or no doubt green protesters.