Not being spied on used to be called freedom

Front page of today's Sun, with the headline 'Blood on their hands' and Facebook's logoYesterday a report from the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) came out that concluded that the murder of Lee Rigby, a British soldier, in London in 2013 could not have been prevented despite the two murderers being known to the intelligence services and having come up in a number of inquiries. The one bit of chatter they were aware of after the event that actually mentions a plan or desire to kill a soldier was on an American Internet service, thought to be Facebook, which is not obliged to share such information about users with foreign intelligence services. However, David Cameron claimed yesterday that Internet providers have a ‘moral responsibility’ to share such data and the Daily Mail’s front page screams “Facebook has blood on its hands”.

Nobody seems interested in considering how a company like Facebook, or any other company providing messaging services, would identify all content that indicates a plan to commit an act of terrorism or indeed any other crime. They already do provide a means of reporting abusive or illegal content, but that requires a reader to be minded to report it. Their reporting system is already overburdened with spurious or malicious reports, non-obvious spam and pictures that offend some people but aren’t illegal, and so on. What politicians seem to want is a means of automatically identifying leads to a criminal conspiracy, but how would they do this without providing a huge pile of innocent material to sift through to find just one possible lead? There are plenty of uses of words like kill, stab, shoot, bomb, explode and so on, not least people talking about things that have already happened and discussing means of preventing them.

It’s no wonder that civil liberties campaigners are already dismissing this report as a pretext for restricting civil liberties among unpopular sections of society. It’s also typical of the kind of “stable-door” legislation that often follows a tragic event; it’s concluded that if the state could have prevented the double murder or the mauling of a child by a dog of a particular breed by discriminating against a hitherto unidentified group or intruding on people’s lives in a way nobody had ever considered, because it was entirely unreasonable. For a comment made by an individual with no criminal convictions to be identified as suspicious purely because of words or phrases used would demand that private companies invest huge amounts of money in apparatus for spying on their users or customers, and that all our conversations are listened into by the state, or some private contractor - quite possibly the same giant IT contractor that helps decide what state benefits, healthcare or insurance we can access. The potential for blackmail should also be borne in mind.

It is usually tyrannical regimes like Assad’s Syria where the ‘walls have ears’ and you can’t say anything without risking attracting the attention of the secret police. That people can sometimes carry out a crime or an act of terrorism without being noticed is a sign that we live in a free country, not that there is not comprehensive enough surveillance. The price of freedom is not eternal vigilance, but risk.

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