IDEA UK debate: Individuals should sacrifice some privacy in the fight against terrorism online

The panelists for IDEA UK's online privacy debate

‘Individuals should sacrifice some privacy in the fight against terrorism online’. Since the revelations by Edward Snowden this has been a hot topic for debate as it was at the Dalston Roof Park yesterday. It is also a somewhat complex and impenetrable topic requiring as it does knowledge of legislation, politics, and technical knowledge. The debate, organised by CoachBright and IDEA UK, brought together several security experts; Robin Simcox from the Henry Jackson Society who specialises in al-Qaeda, and Dr Julian Richards, Co-Director, Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies at the University of Buckingham, with privacy campaigner Jim Killock the Executive Director of Open Rights Group, and Diane Abbott, the local MP who intends to put herself forward to become Labour’s candidate for the 2016 London Mayoral election. 

Hackney MP Diane Abbott with IDEA UK Chair Belinda Lawson

The debate was in the form of a question and answer debate with the chair, Andrew Murray, Professor of Law at the London School of Economics, providing questions and getting the audience involved. All the panellists had a couple of minutes each to set out their positions before questions. There were two main fault lines in the debate. The first was over the necessity of surveillance to prevent terrorism. Robin pointed out that internet surveillance was vital in an age in which terrorism is global and online. There are many countries, such as Yemen, which are key sites for Islamic extremism but where the UK (or indeed the west) has very little intelligence. In such situations greater powers of surveillance online could be vital. But in Yemen “you take the very worst case to justify collecting data on everyone” shot back Diane “I think frightening people about al Qaeda in the name of collecting data on everyone is a disingenuous to say the least”.

(Hackney MP Diane Abbott with IDEA UK Chair Belinda Lawson by CoachBright)

The second fault line was on the question of how much we can trust the British government. Julian argued “the powers should only be used for the most major national security investigations so it should not be a risk” and Robin pointed out that “the state won't be carrying out mass surveillance against people they just disagree with”. However in the most emotive argument of the debate Diane countered that the British government had misused its powers before and most likely would again; as an activist she had been the target of domestic surveillance, and even as an MP is unable to see the police file on her.

There was however one main area of agreement; that the legislation would have to be proportional, unfortunately there are different considerations as to what proportional would actually mean. None of the panellists agreed with the question posed by Professor Murray that it would be worthwhile if it saved a single life. Julian agreed that “just to save one life you don't completely reduce everyone's privacy” while Jim argued “we are spending a fraction (of the spending on GCHQ) on direct surveillance” and yet not always keeping track of those people. And this is at the heart of what the government has to decide when it presents the Investigatory Powers Bill to Parliament; is money better spent on this than other surveillance? And at what point is this surveillance proportional?