In the wake of the Woolwich tragedy, in which a young soldier was brutally killed in broad daylight, it seems that it's not just the English Defence League that are capitalising on the incident. In a more cynical, and certainly disgraceful fashion, our very own Home Secretary is now using the incident to rally support for her Communications Data Bill. Currently blocked by their Liberal Democrat coalition partners, May, alongside other Tory ministers, are now seeking a compromise with Labour in order to push what has been referred to as the "snooping charter" into law.
In this crude actualization of Naomi Klein's "Shock Doctrine", the aura of fear and panic rife throughout the country provides the perfect environment in which to resurrect the policy. If passed, the bill would provide unprecedented powers for the government, intelligence services and private companies to access citizen data, from private messages and e-mails, to the most intimate data on what sites you visit. The Home Office have justified this on two fronts- first, that terrorism is increasingly co-ordinated online. Second, that outsourcing some of this intelligence work to private security companies reduces the financial burden from the public coffers. Such as the dictum goes in Tory HQ, "We're all in it together". Seemingly, that also includes our assumed collective guilt and suspicion.
Those who support the bill argue that the act is simply extends existing laws. Already, telephone companies are obliged to hold records of our data for up to twelve months, so naturally as communication changes, so should security. Despite what I imagine are good intentions, these advocates are also horribly naïve.
For starters, unlike telephone services, the internet operates in complex networks that operate in multiple jurisdictions. We've seen the dark side to this, not least in the imprisonment of Talha Ashan, the British Muslim who was extradited to the US after allegedly having links to a website hosted by American servers. Yet in attempting to catch high level potential threats, this structure poses a difficulty, especially if highly organised groups can store information in jurisdictions beyond British or American reach- something that organisations like Wikileaks have used to their benefit. Even if one poses the counter argument that the bill will be able to catch more home grown terrorists, such as those who carried out the Woolwich murder, the point is still spurious. After all, intelligence services still have an unprecedented level of power over our internet activities, and it is worth noting that both men were previously monitored by MI5.
Second, is the composition of the bill itself. Indeed, one of its notable characteristics is its attempt to distance from New Labour, by outsourcing responsibilities to collect and store on service providers, search engines and social media sites. Yet with easier access to this information as stipulated by the bill, that means that instead of simply finding out who you've been in contact with, both the government and private companies will have access to what you've searched online, how frequently you visit certain sites, and the type of content you consume. Effectively, this information would be used to construct images of us, and decide how likely we might be of committing a crime.
That's all well and good in theory, but as anyone who uses social media services will tell you, there is a huge disparity between us as humans and our online avatars. So while safety might be assured if you spend most of your browsing time looking at LOLcats, that might not be true if you happen to be an activist for the Palestinian cause. If we consider the sheer difficulty of even defining what 'creates' terrorists, then it's not impossible that many who will be at the receiving end of this bill might be detained under quite obscure circumstances. Not only does this waste police time- it also allows those who actually pose a threat to be less easily detected, especially if they make themselves less visible online.
Passing the bill is unlikely to make the streets any safer. Instead, it is far more likely to limit freedom of expression and debate online, while simultaneously disregarding the ways that terrorist groups can continue concealing their activities. Though we will continue to be shaken by such atrocities, it is worth remembering Benjamin Franklin; "Those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither".