Friday, January 16, 2015

Expanding powers, mass surveillance is easy. Tackling terrorism is hard

I wrote to my MP Nicola Blackwood on 1 December 2014 expressing concern about the Counter Terrorism and Security Bill.

I've had a reply today, copy below.
"Dear Mr Corrigan,

Thank you for your email regarding the Counter Terrorism and Security Bill, I do apologise for the delay in my response.

I understand your concerns about the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act, in particular that it came before the House as emergency legislation, and I share your desire to ensure that people’s civil liberties are protected at all times. I have consistently said it is absolutely essential that powers to monitor communications are confined to what is entirely necessary and proportionate to protect our national security, and also to be accountable.

To be clear, this legislation goes no further than regulations which are already in place. Rather, it brings clarity to existing law following a ruling of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in April. The ECJ’s ruling would have struck down regulations that let internet and phone companies retain communications data for law enforcement purposes for 12 months, and therefore a clearer legal framework was needed to underpin companies’ cooperation with law enforcement and intelligence agencies to intercept the communications of serious organised criminals and terrorists. I understand that some companies had already made clear to the Government that they would be unable to work with the UK on this unless that law was consolidated and made clear.

As you may know, I am a member of the Home Affairs Committee, who play an active role in scrutinising Government legislation, the Home Secretary, Rt Hon Theresa May MP, appeared before the Committee to discuss the provisions of the Act. The Government has stated that communications data and interception plays an important role in prosecuting cases of serious organised crime. Therefore, whilst before the Committee, I took the opportunity to ask the Home Secretary about this and she clarified that such data is used in 95% of cases that the Crown Prosecution Service deals with in relation to serious and organised crime; it has been used in all major counter-terrorism investigations over the last decade.

With regards to your concerns about the Counter Terrorism and Security Bill and data retention, this Bill will require Communications Service Providers to retain data that can link a specific device or individual to an IP address. This data will only be available to those public bodies who are entitled to it for lawful purposes, where it is necessary and proportionate to do so on a case-by-case basis.

Currently there are gaps in communications data capability that have a serious impact on the ability of law enforcement to carry out their functions. One such gap is the ability to identify who in the real world was using an Internet IP address at a given point in time. Without this data, it is not always possible to attribute a particular action on the internet to an individual person. For example, it would improve the ability of the police and other agencies to identify terror suspects who may be communicating with each other via the internet and plotting attacks. The Bill also establishes a Civil Liberties Board that would provide further assurance to the public about counter-terrorism arrangements, including ensuring that legislation and policies have due regard for civil liberty and privacy. The Government is also restricting the number of public bodies that can ask for communications data and publishing annual transparency reports, making more information publicly available than ever before. Progress of the bill through Parliament can be found online via:

The Security Service believes that since the attacks on 7 July 2005, around forty terrorist plots have been disrupted. As you may know the independent organisation responsible for gauging the threat posed by terrorism to the UK, the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, recently decided to raise the threat level posed by terrorism to 'severe' and I am confident that this is an objective assessment of the situation the UK faces.

Please be assured that through my role on the Home Affairs committee, I will continue to scrutinise Bills of this nature. You may be interested in the seventeenth report by the committee on Counter Terrorism, which is currently awaiting a response from the Government. Further information about this and the role of the committee is available at:, which I hope you will find useful. I have also passed on your concerns about the Counter Terrorism and Security Bill to James Brokenshire MP, Minister for Security and Immigration and I will of course pass on to you any response I receive in due course.

Thank you again for taking the time to contact me.

Kind regards,

I've responded again but don't hold out much hope of getting through.
Dear Nicola,

I'm disappointed that you would continue to claim the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (DRIPA) 2014 goes no further than regulations which were already in place.

It's a relatively short Act and well worth reading in full but to take just three of the eight sections of the Act:
Section 1 of the DRIPA attempted to re-enact the Data Retention Regulations 2009 (S.I. 2009/859), in addition to giving the Secretary of State, under sections 1(3), 1(4) and 1(7) wide ranging Henry VIII clause powers to amend the law, essentially as and when she likes.

Section 4 expanded the the immensely complex Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) 2000 interception powers, including the extra-territorial reach of those powers.

Section 5 expanded the scope of the meaning of "communications service" to a degree that it could be interpreted to mean any entity using a computer and the internet.
I'd additionally refer you, in particular, to excellent legal analyses by Steve Peers, Graham Smith, Tom Hickman, Liberty, the Open Rights Group, Privacy International, Big Brother Watch, Article 19 and English PEN.

I'm familiar with the Home Secretary's appearance before the Home Affairs Committee saying communications data is used in 95% of cases that the Crown Prosecution Service deals with in relation to serious and organised crime. The only surprise was that it was not 100%.

I won't repeat the objections I have already outlined in relation to the Counter Terrorism & Security Bill, other than to re-inforce my concern about the Bill's Section 21 obligation on public bodies including universities, schools, nurseries and councils to prevent terrorism.

Since I wrote to you on 1 December, Security Minister, James Brokenshire has gone on record at the Joint Committee on Human Rights session on 3 December 2014, as saying that section 21 sanctions under the Act could include prison time for university staff. The Committee has since recommended that the new "prevent"duty is not appropriate for application to universities. I would therefore appreciate an indication of where you stand on this.

More generally, though, I would make a handful of concluding points.

Changing the law is easy.

Expanding powers is easy.

Throwing public money at the security services, computers and mass surveillance is easy.

Playing the tough-on-terrorism rhetoric to the gallery and the press is easy.

And the, so far, short 21st century history of the effects of these easy activities is not pretty.

Actually tackling terrorism is hard.

It requires gold standard human intelligence as well as signals intelligence (and not the mythical magic terrorist catching machines and laws policy makers seems to believe in).

It requires social and economic stability.
It requires trust in the institutions of state, like the police and security services.

It requires equality of opportunity, regardless of background, race, creed, disability, gender or any other form of human categorisation.

It requires an absence of the demonisation of entire communities or peoples just because someone commits an act of violence they claim to be in the name of that community or their religion.

It requires a respect for and implementation of the rule of law and fundamental rights all over the world.

It requires an absence of state, commercial or cause sanctioned rendition, torture, maiming and murder sometimes on an industrial scale and by remote control.

It requires care, concern and deeply embedded respect for human dignity from individuals through all levels of society and its public, commercial and other institutions.

You were sold a pig in a poke with DRIPA. Don't buy into the same confidence trick with the Counter Terrorism & Security Bill and the snoopers' charter and the Prime Minister's new grand plan to ban encryption and ensure there are no communications the government cannot read.

It is too easy and does incalculable damage.


Update: Thanks to the eagle eyed spotters of the spelling error in the title, now corrected.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Mass surveillance is bad for you and it doesn't work

I have an op ed in New Scientist today, Mass surveillance not effective for finding terrorists.

"Cameron seems to believe terrorist attacks can be prevented if only mass surveillance, by the UK's intelligence-gathering centre GCHQ and the US National Security Agency, reaches the degree of perfection portrayed in his favourite TV dramas, where computers magically pinpoint the bad guys. Computers don't work this way in real life and neither does mass surveillance...
Mass data collectors can dig deeply into anyone's digital persona but don't have the resources to do so with everyone. Surveillance of the entire population, the vast majority of whom are innocent, leads to the diversion of limited intelligence resources in pursuit of huge numbers of false leads...
Even if your magic terrorist-catching machine has a false positive rate of 1 in 1000 - and no security technology comes anywhere near this - every time you asked it for suspects in the UK it would flag 60,000 innocent people...
Law enforcement and security services need to be able to... engage in court-supervised technological surveillance of individuals whom they have reasonable cause to suspect. That is not, however, the same as building an infrastructure of mass surveillance.
Mass surveillance makes the job of the security services more difficult and the rest of us less secure."
Thanks to Jon White at New Scientist for the invitation to write for them.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

University staff could go to jail for failing in "prevent" duty

Embedded video below of the Joint Committee on Human Rights session on 3 December 2014 at which security minister, James Brokenshire, in response to repeated questioning by Baroness Helena Kennedy, indicated university staff could go to prison for failing to fulfil our section 21 "prevent" duty satisfactorily, under the proposed Counter Terrorism And Security Bill. (Discussion on section 21 and universities starts about 10:50. Baroness Kennedy launches in about 10:57. Critical statement comes from Mr Brokenshire at 11.21.30 "Ultimately the Secretary of State would have to enforce that through the courts... a contempt of court in those circumstances." Baroness Kennedy asks "So they would jail the director of the college?" Mr Brokenshire deflects and prevaricates then on repeated pushing by Baroness Kennedy gets at 11:23:40 to "Ultimately it would be a contempt of court sanction" i.e jail time).

Martin Hall former vice-chancellor of the University of Salford, is one of many who think this is a bad idea. The Human Rights Committee itself has just published its report on the Bill also noting this is a bad idea and suggesting universities be exempt from the section 21 obligations
"6.11 In our view, because of the importance of freedom of speech and academic freedom in the context of university education, the entire legal framework which rests on the new "prevent" duty is not appropriate for application to universities. We recommend that the Bill be amended to remove universities from the list of specified authorities to which the new duty applies. Alternatively, we recommend that the Bill be amended to add the exercise of an academic function to the list of functions which are excepted from the application of the duty."

UK government exploiting Paris terror attacks to expand mass surveilance

I have an article in The Conversation this morning about the UK government's unconscionable exploitation of the terror attacks in Paris last week.

Copy of original unedited version below.

Je Suis Charlie

No one has seen anything like the demonstrations on the streets of Paris on Sunday 11 January 2015 since the end of World War II. 

Three deranged men murdered 17 people last week and millions mobilised, not just in the French capital but throughout the country, united in solidarity to express sympathy for the victims’ families and friends, intolerance of hatred and terrorism, and publicly acknowledge the country’s distress, defend freedom through satire and, no doubt, a whole host of other personal reasons unique to each individual on those streets.

Political leaders were out in force too, uncomfortably linking arms at the front of the crowd. What is it the cynics say? Never waste a crisis or photo opportunity? 

I must admit my own response to the talking head wind-bagging on the Charlie Hebdo attacks and other murders was less than charitable; noting the opportunist hypocrisy on the part of political leaders calling for more mass surveillance in response to the attacks to be almost staggering. 

David Cameron and Theresa May judge conditions to be ripe for promoting a re-introduction of the snoopers charter and railroading through of the Counter Terrorism and Security Bill which could result in the jailing of university staff refusing to report students suspected of undefined extremism.
The French Prime Minister, in echoes of the appalling failures of Blair-Bush-ism, has called for a war on terrorism.

I was wrong in one respect at least.

It is cynical, opportunistic and hypocritical but not in the least surprising that politicians would use the Paris attacks to further their own agendas. Neither is it surprising they would fly to Paris for the mass commemorations. There is a good chance the likes of David Cameron would have been roundly abused, possibly even with satirical cartoons, if he had declined to show up. Cameron is flying to the US to discuss the Paris murders with President Obama later this week, as well as plans for GCHQ to work more closely with the NSA.  More closely? If the Snowden revelations are to be believed it is hard to see how they could be any closer.

In light of the politicking/electioneering, I do have a question or two for Mr Cameron and perhaps a suggestion or two for the mainstream media hacks who do get access to him. 

Now you’ve been to Paris to stand up for free speech, will you repeal laws like section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 which criminalises offensive speech?

How exactly will the further expansion of mass surveillance in the UK cure the problem of known terrorists committing murder? (If anyone should doubt we already have mass surveillance in this country, I suggest typing ‘Snowden’ or ‘Tempora’ or ‘OpticNerve’ ‘DRIPA’ or ‘GCHQ’ or ‘NSA’ into your favourite search engine and perusing the results at your leisure. Alternatively spend some time with The Guardian’s NSA files).

The French intelligence and security services could not keep track of the Kouachi brothers, known extremists, to a sufficient degree to prevent the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Likewise Amedy Coulibaly who murdered a police officer and 4 others in a supermarket.

France has blanket electronic surveillance. France has armed police. France even has the ID cards so beloved yet so tantalisingly eventually out of reach of Tony Blair and his succession of home secretaries. France has an inquisitorial justice system the purveyors of the Counter Terrorism and Security Bill’s ‘prevent’ duty seem to be hankering after. France arguably also has a constitution that mass surveillance, at least, offends against.

None of it was enough to stop the Kouchais and Coulibaly.

If it takes a conservative 20 intelligence and securitystaff to monitor a suspect 24/7, where do we get and how to we provide the 1.2 billion staff and associated resources to watch the 60 million people in the UK?

Not going to watch the 60 million 24/7? Which ones and how many will you watch in addition to the known dangerous individuals you are already unable to keep track of

Which, for example, of the resources currently devoted to extremely dangerous suspects will be diverted to watching grumpy academics disinclined to engage in their ‘prevent’ duty, under section 21 of the Counter Terrorism & Security Bill to report students prepared to voice non-standard views.

Little noticed last week the Parliamentary Human Rights Joint Committee issued their fifth report. By coincidence, it happened to be a legislative scrutiny of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill. In it they criticise the Bill as an attack on freedom of expression and academic freedom. They even recommend universities be exempt from the section 21 preventing terrorism duty:

6.11 In our view, because of the importance of freedom of speech and academic freedom in the context of university education, the entire legal framework which rests on the new "prevent" duty is not appropriate for application to universities. We recommend that the Bill be amended to remove universities from the list of specified authorities to which the new duty applies. 

That might, should a blue moon ascend and associated flock of pigs fly past and the government accept this recommendation, be good news for universities and irascible academics. But where does it leave the rest of the public servants burdened with this ill-defined, liberty-bashing, preventing terrorism duty?

Two final questions and a suggestion.

If the Paris terrorists had been white middle class Manchester United supporters declaring their motives to be love of Alex Ferguson and all things Red Devilish, would political leaders have been so keen to gather in commemoration; and condemn Man Utd supporters as extremists we need new mass surveillance laws to guard against?

How, in the name of all that is holy, if I may borrow a phrase from the violent religious extremists that cause rational thinking human beings due concern, can anyone consider it a respectable or defensible position to require everyone in public service to spy on each other and the rest of the population?

The suggestion? 

Try typing ‘Stasi’ 'NKVD' and 'KGB' into your favourite search engine and looking through the selection of offerings it throws up. Then ask yourself why the West spend over 40 years fighting a Cold War against the Soviet Union and its allies, if all we wanted to do was construct the architecture of a surveillance state that would make those guys weep with envy...