Destroying online freedom in the name of counter-terrorism will make the world a more dangerous place

Author

Carly Nyst

November 7, 2014

It is not terrorists who threaten that future of the internet, but our intelligence and security services

Robert Hannigan, the new head of GCHQ, announced his arrival this week with a call for “greater co-operation” with security forces by tech companies . Hannigan’s article in the Financial Times illustrated vividly the destructive ideology that has driven the infiltration by the British and American intelligence agencies into every aspects of the digital realm – an unquestioning faith in the righteous purpose of intelligence agencies, a complete mischaracterisation of the nature of the internet and its value, and a frightening belief that companies stand only on the side of the State, rather than in the interests of the privacy and security of their users.

Hannigan’s decision to enter the debate in this way is extraordinary. In a parliamentary democracy based on the Rule of Law, it is not appropriate for civil servants to speak for government or set policy.

His rhetoric is all the more disappointing for being the first public response by GCHQ to the serious challenges to the lawfulness of its activities since the first of the Snowden revelations in summer 2013.

Such activities include, of course, mass surveillance of all communications in and out of the British Isles, warrantless access to the NSA’s databases, the hacking of user devices and even the infiltration of Yahoo webcam chats.

Over the past year, in courts and inquiries and the media, GCHQ has refused to confirm or deny any of its wrongdoings, and the Government has refused to engage in any constructive conversation on how to prevent the overreach of intelligence agencies in the digital age.

Rather than acknowledge the very real misgivings that the British people have in the accountability of the services charged with protecting their security, Hannigan has used his public platform as an exercise in ex-post justification, and to launch the case for expanded powers. The audacity of such an attack, even as GCHQ is under the review of the Intelligence Services Committee, the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation and the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, is astounding.

In any event, Hannigan’s argument begins from the fundamentally flawed premise that the internet is a tool of terror, rather than an instrument for public good – the greatest tool for education, expression, connection and innovation humankind has ever seen. The emancipatory power of the internet lies in its free and democratic nature.

Just as the trade off for a truly democratic society is that dissent, insecurity and even hatred cannot be stamped out before they materialise, so too a truly open, democratised internet cannot be sanitised against terror without undermining the very qualities that make it so important to our lives. This is exactly what mass surveillance of the internet is aimed at, and as a result it debases the rights to privacy and free expression that we need for flourishing democracies.

Hannigan asserts that the right to privacy should not be a reason for postponing urgent and difficult decisions. In doing so he in fact makes the case for strong opposition by the private sector: when the State sees human rights as inconvenient obstacles to greater control, those who are in a position to oppose the encroachment of State power must take a stand. Many technology companies understand this – they also grew up on the internet and have been beneficiaries of its democratic nature.

Technology companies understand that progress and innovation and development come not through secretive pacts and sanitised products, but through disruption, challenging ideas and participation.

Hannigan is right that technology companies are not neutral conduits of data sitting outside politics. They have the power to protect their users’ privacy, to protect the free and open nature of the internet and demand transparent laws and due process in exchange for their co-operation with States. The internet is, and can continue to be, the command and control networks of choice for every person, around the world. It is not terrorists who threaten that future of the internet, but our intelligence and security services.

Carly Nyst is Legal Director of Privacy International a member of the Don’t Spy On Us coalition.

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