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Peter Clark and “the surveillance society”

Posted by James Hammerton @ 5:42 pm on 14 September, 2008.
Categories privacy and surveillance, democracy and the rule of law, British politics.
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Peter Clark, writing recently in the times, argues that “the surveillance society” has enabled the conviction of several people plotting to set off bombs, created out of liquid explosives and disguised as soft drinks:

We have what is probably the most effective counter-terrorist machinery in the world. The organisations involved have been at full stretch for years, and despite the gainsayers, the legal and ethical standards of the counter-terrorist effort are incredibly high - the British public demands and deserves no less.

They also deserve a better quality debate about the relationship between individual liberties and collective security.

Take this case. To save the lives of the innocent and convict the would-be killers we used all the tools in the security armoury. Deeply intrusive surveillance, informants, CCTV, DNA, telephone call data and so on. This was not about collecting information for its own sake - it was to secure evidence to put before a court.

Some critics fail to understand that sophisticated, modern evidence gathering has allowed the most complex terrorist conspiracies to be tried in our criminal courts in front of a jury. No need for military commissions or the juryless Diplock courts of Northern Ireland.

The series of terrorist convictions in recent years has been a victory for the rule of law and sends out a strong, positive signal to all communities. But it couldn’t have happened if things that used to be buried deep in the world of intelligence were not now brought blinking into the light of the courtroom.

And what if we had failed? What if the prosecution case was right, and half a dozen American airliners were to be brought down by British terrorists, operating from Britain and in effect using the UK as a launch pad for an attack on the United States? What would have happened to the UK and indeed the global economy? What would the impact have been on UK/US relations? What about the pressure it would have placed on Muslims in the UK? A very senior politician, at the time of the arrests, told me he thought it could have led to a breakdown in the community cohesion that had survived the attacks in 2005.

So let’s remember the benefits of the “surveillance society”. We should draw satisfaction that due to terrorist convictions in our courts, thousands of people are alive today because those who wanted to kill them could be bugged and burgled - within the Rule of Law and for the common good.

The problem with this argument is simple. Peter Clark is not talking about “the surveillance society” at all. He is talking about targetted surveillance against those whom the police have reason to believe may pose a serious threat.

I have no problem with “all the tools in the security armoury” being used to investigate those whom the authorities have reason to believe are up to no good, so long as safeguards are in place to ensure such intrusive surveillance really is directed against such people and isn’t abused. Clark and I might have a real argument about precisely what those safeguards should be, but that is beside the point. The point is that Clark is conflating targeted surveillance with “the surveillance society”, the latter of which involves routine mass surveillance of the general public. Such routine mass surveillance is completely unnecessary for the sort of targetted surveillance Clark is talking about and is not supported by the successes of surveillance targeted against suspected terrorists.

UK Liberty also has some good comments on Clark’s article.

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