Tuesday, July 12, 2005

A Pyrrhic victory in the War Against Terrorism isn't worth winning

Charles Clarke is increasingly displaying squirrel-like hoarding behaviour. He's collecting information like a squirrel collects nuts and acorns. Pine martens often eat squirrels for breakfast, so this has attracted my attention. Our beloved Home Secretary seems to believe that hoarding vast amounts of information about everyoneis the solution to just about everything. His pet ID cards project is supposed to be the solution to benefit fraud, illegal immigration, identity theft, so-called health tourism, terrorism... Oh no, hang on, not terrorism it appears. Following last week's bombings in London, Charles Clarke was asked on BBC Radio 4's Today Programme if he thought that ID cards would have prevented them. "I doubt it would have made a difference" answered Mr Clarke. To give credit where it's due, at least he's admitted that they wouldn't be much use to ensure our security. That particular huge pile of information about the details of every single resident of the United Kingdom wouldn't have helped one jot. So having cleverly worked this out for himself, what conclusions did Mr Clarke draw from this realisation? Maybe we should concentrate time, money, technology, expertise and effort on some real intelligence work on the ground. Or maybe there should be sniffer dogs in Tube stations. I don't know exactly, I'm a pine marten, not a policeman, but some measure that could demonstrably deter or obstruct terrorism.

But no. Charles Clarke thinks that what we need is - wait for it! - another gigantic hoard of information about every single individual. Specifically, Charles Clarke now wants to keep records of every single telephone call, email and text message for five years, to ensure the traceability of terrorists' movements, and to foil plots such as the London and Madrid bombings. Now that's pretty intrusive I think. But that doesn't deter Mr Clarke, because he wants this applied across the entire EU. Charles Clarke wants to snoop on 456 million people.

I appreciate that Clarke needs to be seen to do something in the wake of the attacks on London, but this is ridiculous. The amount of data that he's proposing should be amassed is so vast as to be practically unusable. Never mind the cost and logistics of this proposal, how would the security services ever find the relevant, useful information? Al-Qaeda operatives are unlikely to send emails such as this one:

"From: SectionChief@al-qaeda.org
To: Ahmed@islamofascists.com

Hey Ahmed, how's it going?
Are we still on for the car bombing of the Royal Palace in Copenhagen on Tuesday at 3.15pm?

Take it easy,
A."

Information on its own is of no use whatsoever. Where would you start looking? What would you do? Run filters on emails for the words "Al-Qaeda" and "terrorist jamboree"? It's extremely unlikely that you'll foil any terrorist plots in this way. But it is extremely likely that you could charge a lot of innocent people for "acts preparatory to terrorism" and "glorifying or condoning" acts of terrorism.

The problem is that a lot of draconian legislation intended to counter terrorism ends up being used against ordinary criminals, or even ordinary citizens. For example, last week the Law Lords decided that in the case of a prisoner named Harry Roberts, the Parole Board could keep evidence that was used to deny him parole secret, under the appalling "Special Advocates" system. Since the defendant cannot see the evidence, he also can't defend himself. This dubious system was introduced by the The Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 (ATCSA).

Charles Clarke seems to believe that he can protect us all from terrorism amongst other ills by giving the State the means to keep track of everyone's movements, particulars and communications. However we have come a long way since the time when this sort of constant surveillance was the norm in the Eastern Block (Jaruzelski era Polish joke: "Poland is the only country in the world where the TV watches you"), and there is now so much data to collect and sift through that it's doubtful whether it is even technically possible to do so at all, let alone effectively. One need only look at the difficulties that current police states have in trying to do this sort of thing. "Seditious" websites are popping up faster that the Chinese government can shut them down. Iran has effectively given up trying to control electronic media and Persian is now the fourth language on the Internet. Cuba only manages to control it because no-one can afford computers.

I don't wish to be blown up on my way to work, but I do not want the State to keep me under surveillance "for my own good" either. In the past year, people have started interrupting email conversations, stating reasons such as "I don't want to end up on some government list". That is not a concern that citizens of free countries are supposed to have. What is the War on Terrorism about after all? Isn't it about preserving our freedom, our liberties, our way of life? If we sacrifice those in the interests of beating the enemy, then it really is a Pyrrhic victory.

"They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

Benjamin Franklin - Historical Review of Pennsylvania, 1759

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