. Sabir on Security: A government that listens! (to your phone calls) | Ceasefire Magazine

Sabir on Security: A government that listens! (to your phone calls)

A few days ago, the coalition announced its plans to track every text, email and phone call we make. This is not only a spectacular U-turn, argues Rizwaan Sabir, but is a threat to our liberties, will reduce our safety and comes with a bill we can ill afford.

New in Ceasefire, Sabir on Security - Posted on Friday, October 29, 2010 22:22 - 4 Comments

By Rizwaan Sabir

“We will end the storage of internet and email records without good reason”
(Coalition Government agreement ), Summer 2010

“[We will] Introduce a programme to preserve the ability of the security, intelligence and law enforcement agencies to obtain communication data and to intercept communications…”
(The Strategic Defence & Security Review ), Autumn 2010

In the past few weeks, whilst the press, and the population at large, have been busy trying to get a sense of the colossal scale of the coalition’s cuts, the government has been busy reintroducing the very type of assaults on people’s liberties that they’d been decrying in opposition. We had thought these attacks on our privacy had gone away for good after the defeat of the New Labour project. We thought wrong.

The coalition’s backdoor assault comes in the form of the ‘Interception Modernisation Programme’ (IMP), which aims to collate, and store, every email and text message sent or received, every webpage that is visited and every phone call that is made in the UK. Records of all this are now to be kept on a centralised database that the police, security services, intelligence services and GCHQ will have access to.

This proposal is a spectacular U-turn on the coalition government’s initial grandiose claims that it intends to roll back the reach and scope of New Labour’s surveillance state, including those far ranging powers introduced under the pretext of “fighting terrorism”. It now seems that the coalition partners have promptly forgotten their campaign ‘promise’ and will be doing what freshly-elected ‘democratic’ governments in the UK do best: whatever it is they want to do.

Let’s start with the obvious, the IMP is a clear violation of human rights laws, especially privacy laws, which categorically state that everyone has a right to a private and family life and to privacy of correspondence.

Moreover, the IMP does very little to enhance the UK’s national-security, especially when you factor in its projected cost – £12 billion; far too much at a time when austerity measures are being imposed on a stunned population and savage public spending cuts are the new religion.

The pretext of “counter-terrorism” is an interesting one, not only because the new team is willing to sacrifice almost all of our rights and freedoms for the purpose of confronting some alleged perpetual, lethal terrorist threat, but also because ‘fighting terrorism’ has always been a mere excuse to lower the bar for what becomes acceptable conduct for the police and security apparatus (for example, torture and complicity in torture).

Of course, the Spooks argue that there is robust ministerial, parliamentary and judicial oversight to ensure their agents do not abuse their powers, but that’s the theory. In reality, the daily activities of the security services and GCHQ are largely secret and unaccounted for. An example would be the amount of time it has taken for allegations against the secret service of complicity in torture abroad to gain judicial momentum. The police, on the other hand, are more unlucky when it comes to being ‘caught’ abusing their powers, but even when officers are caught, they still largely go unpunished for their actions. Let us all never forget the killing of Ian Tomlinson, a sad, shameful, but eloquent example of an entire culture of impunity.

Have no illusions: programmes such as the ‘Interception Modernisation Programme’ do nothing more than increase the power of institutions that are largely unaccountable already, for no apparent reason than to control and encroach upon the private lives of the public. More troublingly, they authorise the State to use (and abuse) the vast volumes of information stored on innocent people for reasons that will never be disclosed to them.

It is common knowledge that the powers which have so far been introduced for the purpose of counter-terrorism have done little to actually counter the threat of terrorism, but have been very effective in curtailing our collective rights of protest, free speech, and privacy.

If you combine this paradox with the seemingly endemic incompetence of civil servants, officers and bureaucrats over the recent past, including an astonishing propensity to illegally (mis)handle and (mis)store sensitive and private information, the centralised database seems to be a perfect recipe for disaster.

Arguably, granting law-enforcement agencies and the security-apparatus adequate powers to do their actual ‘job’ of protecting the public well is an important perquisite for the State’s ability to confront genuine threats to national security. However, introducing sweeping, Orwellian-like powers that are obsessed with collecting large swaths of our private data, with a zeal worthy of the Stasi, has no place in any nation with a claim to “civilised” status.

The Interception Modernisation Programme is expensive, unnecessary and disproportionate. It damages our communities, does little to protect us from terrorism and will increase rather than reduce the risk of threats: It must be scrapped, now.

Rizwaan Sabir is a human rights activist and doctoral researcher at the University of Strathclyde. He is researching the role of Islam in British and Scottish government policy, with a special focus on counter-terrorism. In May 2008 he was detained for six days as a suspected member of al-Qaida for being in possession of primary research literature. He was released without charge. His column on counter-terrorism and security appears every other Friday.


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Oct 30, 2010 14:48

Remember too that these databases are too large to be intelligently sorted manually – they are mainly used for “profiling”, i.e. computer software scans for patterns which correlate with those deemed to be suspicious because they are similar to those of previous “terrorists” (or suspects?), or perhaps other categories of deviants (e.g. computerised tube station CCTV spots suspected potential suicides), and these patterns deemed suspicious are secret (else they’d be easy to evade) and automated (else too much work). The programs used are probably of the same type as the data-mining programs which generate things like Amazon recommendations and targeted Google ads. Have a look at how often these programs spring up false or even incriminating hits (e.g. searching google books on passports and identity leads to graphical ads clearly aimed at people looking to create fake identities, buying a few books on terrorism soon has the writings of bin Laden popping up on recommendations), and the danger from government ‘suspicion’ will be very clear. In the age of profiling, there is no correlation between having something to hide and something to fear.

At present there’s still ways to minimise the impact of these things. Activists are becoming more and more aware of “security culture” such as not discussing protests on the phone or in hearing distance of a phone. During the Iranian protests, protesters commonly used Tor, proxies and VPN’s to get around regime surveillance and censorship. Blackberries, and some programmes such as Skype, are encrypted peer-to-peer in terms of content. Other things I’ve heard of being used in such contexts include using public wi-fi spots, cybercafes, public phone boxes, uncontracted pay-as-you-go mobiles, and software such as Truecrypt. Remembering that most surveillance is aggregative, it also helps to avoid joining up accounts, sites and interests, and avoid putting real-life details online – anything that requires manual effort to join the dots.

Major Afzaal Shafi
Nov 2, 2010 11:36

Hi Rizwan

I can see your concerns about IMP, especially when it is different to their manifesto for election. With due respect and regards for the human right activists concerns, we have to give a due consideration to the changing world, which is becoming more and more unsafe. The recent plot of bombing on cargo airlines speaks for itself.

I personally feel that, in order to save the lives, any action that helps towards the cause is fine, as long as the strict measures are put in place to avoid the abuse of personnel information. Human rights activists therefore have to be flexible in their strategy, keeping the safety as a primary consideration.

Have a good day.

Nov 3, 2010 17:16

Major Afzaal,

Many thanks for leaving your comments, however, I must say that I fundamentally disagree with the premise of your arguments.

Your believe that in times of insecurity, human rights and civil liberties can be sidelined, but I ask you, when else would human rights and civil liberties be useful to people? In times of peace and harmony or in times of insecurity?

In times of peace and harmony individuals don’t really need to exercise their human rights because they are not being threatened by the State or the executive. It is precisely in times of insecurity and uncertainly that human rights and civil liberties are required because this is the time when individuals (and society as a whole thanks to programmes such as the IMP) are most at risk of abuse from the State. I believe that your argument which, to paraphrase, is saying that human rights can be made flexible in times of insecurity is disingenuous. It is precisely in these times that human rights should be adhered to, not sidelined and marginalised because they become ‘inconvenient’.

In response to your claim that we live in a changing world and an increasingly dangerous place, well I would argue that the world has always been a dangerous place and will continue to be a dangerous place. We did not require some of the policies that we have today to combat the threats we faced in the past, which means we also do not need them now. We’ve done without them before and we can make do without them now.

You stated: “I personally feel that, in order to save the lives [of innocent people], any action that helps towards the cause is fine…”

This argument is fundamentally flawed and goes against the very essence of what human rights stand for. It is exactly such thinking that has resulted in the illegal practices of the ‘War on Terror’, notable examples being torture, extrajudicial killings and indefinite detention without charge or trial. In any civilised society, respect and actions within the law is what is used to judge the ‘civilised status’ of a nation-state. If, as you argue, the State should leave this understanding and begin adopting the argument that the “ends justify the means” then I believe the nation-state lowers the bar for what is acceptable and leaves the status of ‘civilised’ behind. Moreover, practices such as these only allow the State to move towards authoritarianism, which results in two things: abuse of executive power and violations of human rights.

Human rights and civil liberties are absolute and non-negotiable. The executive should learn that it must act in accordance with them (i.e., in accordance with national and international law). Moving away from them only results in some of the well-documented and well-cited examples of abuse and suffering.


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Nov 17, 2010 10:25

[…] to ditch deeply unpopular projects such as the ID card scheme, but the decision to push ahead with monitoring all electronic communications demonstrates that the make up of the government has little impact on the development of the state […]

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