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What Is the Balance That Needs to Be Struck Between Security and Liberty?

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This week Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister and Lib Dem leader, announced an independent review into the capabilities of the security services and the way in which the public and Parliament is able to oversee their work. The review will be similar to the one which Barack Obama set up in America and will be led by the military and security think tank, the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). It will be an opportunity for experts to examine the our existing legislation, and the balance between security and liberty.

This is an issue which has caused intense debate abroad, in Germany and the US in particular. But for some reason it has failed to capture the public's imagination at home in the same way. Even the case of Edward Snowden has had a limited impact, rather than causing fireworks. Indeed, both Labour and the Conservatives have been unwilling to debate these issues. I'm pleased to see Labour have at last dipped their toe tentatively into the water. That said, given this is from the party that tried to give us all ID cards and 90 day detention, I'm not holding my breath.

But this is an important issue, which we need to examine, and which affects the lives of almost everyone in the country. Are we comfortable with the way in which our personal data is collected, and who has access to it? How much does our right to privacy matter, in an age where we share photos and personal details online with so much abandon? What is the balance that needs to be struck between security and liberty? This is a debate which needs to take place, and that is why I'm pleased that this week the Liberal Democrats will debate a new Digital Bill of Rights at our spring conference in York.

This isn't a debate about the work of the security services, or questioning their integrity. Their importance and professionalism is not in doubt. It is a debate about how we ensure that we protect freedom, the right to privacy and our civil liberties. This is a debate about whether our legislation, namely the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2003, is up to date. This legislation was drafted before the implications of the internet were really understood, and before our phones had the capability to surf the internet.

The scale of the issue demonstrates its importance. It is stating the obvious to say that we live in a global, interconnected world. Online communications are an integral part of modern life. When you delve into the statistics, the reality is truly staggering. As Nick Clegg said in his speech to RUSI on Tuesday, 22billion letters are delivered by Royal Mail each year. In comparison, around 2.4trillion emails are sent every year in the UK. That's more emails sent in four days than letters delivered in a whole year. This is just part of the picture. I'm told that there are one billion tweets, 23billion Google searches, 70 billion Facebook views, 145 billion text messages, and 160billion instant messages sent in the UK each year.

This frankly staggering growth in digital communications has created important questions about our own privacy, and the capability of the security services to peak into the private lives of every man, woman and child. Indeed, many will have been surprised at the far-reaching nature of some of the capabilities that GCHQ has developed in recent years. That is why we must address the issue, and why I am pleased that RUSI have agreed to take forward this important work. The finished report will provide us with an impartial view of how we can best ensure that we update our Parliamentary oversight and legislation to make it fit for a modern age. It won't fix this problem, only Parliament can make the changes that are required, but it will enable us to better debate the issue, and understand what changes we need to make.

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