Lee Rigby, a soldier from the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, was mown down by a car and hacked to death by two men in Woolwich, London two weeks ago. The public theatre of flowers in the street, weeping family press conference, and puzzled interviews of have-a-go heroes was still in progress when the right ‘response’ to the murders emerged as if from nowhere: ‘We must force Internet and mobile service providers to capture customer data and provide it to government agencies, no matter what the cost to democracy or in cold hard cash.’
What an utter non sequitur.
When an army family’s soldier is deployed, every call from an unknown number or ring on the doorbell is a cause for alarm. Last summer, when my husband’s battalion was in Helmand, I made the mistake of ringing a friend’s front doorbell instead of tapping on the back door, when I went round for coffee. I will never forget the look of pale horror on her face as she yanked back the door, heavily pregnant and with a child on her hip, to see at once who was outside. And how her face cracked into the silent movie version of happiness and relief to see it was only me, and not the welfare officer with news of the worst kind.
When your husband (or wife, or son or daughter) comes home, your gut untwists itself in an instant. The relentless mental subroutine of worry stops dead, and you forget what it was ever like to have that fear always buzzing in the background. So when Lee Rigby’s family got the call everyone dreads, over a month after their son had returned from Afghanistan, the feeling of sheer wrongness at losing him was strengthened by a sense of his death being almost an impossibility, now that he was finally home.
That said, there have been hints and mutterings for years of ‘chickens coming home to roost’, and British soldiers coming under attack from Islamic extremists in the UK. It was with a sickened sense of the inevitable that some of us greeted the news of the Woolwich murder. We all knew the fly-paper theory – keeping Al Qaeda’s fellow travellers occupied in Iraq or Afghanistan so they won’t trouble us at home – was just wishful thinking. It was always going to come to this.
And so, as in a more or less functioning democracy, the government has equipped itself with appropriate powers and adequately resourced its agencies to try to prevent domestic terrorism. Any additions to those powers, particularly at the expense of democracy, freedom and the rule of law, would be both proportionate and necessary, and only come to through public and accountable political processes. Right?
Lee Rigby’s body had not yet been released to his family when a network of political securocrats were grabbing spots on radio, television and in national newspapers to say the soldier’s death must revive the so-called Snooper’s Charter. The measure is a draft bill, dropped from the Queen’s Speech after a Lib Dem intervention last month, to require phone and Internet companies to store every customer’s data – social media, web and mobile phone use – for 12 months for access by the police and security services. If you don’t see the connection, since communications data hasn’t even been mentioned in connection with Lee Rigby’s killing, you’re not alone. This is an opportunistic power grab, pure and simple.
The Communications Data Bill is a Home Office project that’s knocked around for over a decade. It’s usually shot down because there’s no money to pay to store all the data on all the people, all the time. Existing powers mean about a month’s data is stored at any time, and accessed by law enforcement thousands of times a year. Labour and Conservative ministers have tried to shove blanket powers through in every way imaginable; full legislation, unscrutinised regulation, even quietly policy-laundering it through the European Council of Ministers and bringing it back home under the banner ‘Europe said we must’. Each time, it’s fallen not because either party gives a damn about the democratic values they claim to uphold and send the army out to fight for, but because industry says it can’t or won’t comply.
In the political securocrat’s playbook, it’s not necessary to understand the draft law or, God forbid, the privately held communications and storage technology that would implement it. It’s enough to simply parrot dismissive talking points that say law enforcement and security must get what they want, especially now that an attack has occurred. Funny, that. In my world, failure means punishment, not prizes.
The evening of the murder, John Reid, former Labour Home Secretary and current board member of G4S, threatened that the surveillance powers were crucial, but it would take “some huge tragedy” for people to understand that. Chilling, but also illogical, given the suspects were known to the security services and did not need to be swept up in a random data trawl.
Lib Dem peer Lord Carlile spoke out before Lee Rigby had even been named, saying while of course we mustn’t ‘rush to judgement’, the government should jolly well re-consider its abandonment of the Communications Data Bill.
Over a week later, and admitting he’d still not read the proposal (published in June 2012), Gordon Brown’s former security minister, Lord West, said on Radio 4 that it was “daft” not to give policy and security agencies extra powers. He went on to mischaracterise the existing powers, and seemed entirely ignorant of the recent parliamentary scrutiny committee’s report finding the proposals impractical, unnecessary and their official costings largely fictive.
It was left, surprisingly, to government minister Baroness Warsi to respectfully point out the obvious:
“But I think the wrong way to make legislation is on the back of a tragedy like this. It isn’t the moment to start looking at the kind of legislation we should or should not have. I’m sure at some point it will play into the debate.”
But lest there be any doubt of the Conservative Party’s ultimate intentions, Theresa May was reportedly furious when the LibDem leadership did one of maybe three ballsy things they’ve done in coalition, and managed to shelve the bill a month ago. I hear the relevant measures are most likely to be introduced via regulation, avoiding parliamentary scrutiny and circumventing the democratic process.
The only outsiders invited to work on the measure will be industry leaders – Internet and mobile service providers, Google, Facebook et al. While those companies’ interests sometimes overlap with citizens’, they are storing and analysing more and more of our personal data every day, and don’t have a leg to stand on when it comes to saying no to government fishing expeditions. Citizens and non-industry experts will be kept out of the room when the deal is done, and even refused Freedom of Information access to the proceedings afterward. It’s a pretty rum version of the democracy the British armed forces are supposed to be defending.
The UK no longer has credibility when it comes to chivying other countries about using the Internet and communications networks to surveil and suppress their citizens. Exporting democracy and the rule of law to places like Afghanistan? That’s not our brand identity. What the UK leads on is exporting the policy, laws and, increasingly, the actual technology of political suppression and social control to some of the nastiest countries in the world.
So as an army wife who happens to know something about this issue, I am doubly sickened to see the rush to use a soldier’s horrible death in this way. It’s opportunistic, it’s ugly, and it undermines the values soldiers are sent to fight for abroad. Just as soldiers don’t get to question and refuse the campaigns politicians send them on, nor should politicians capitalise on the deaths of soldiers for shadowy political motives.