Yesterday I used the Internet as follows:

  1. Sent and received 81 emails, of which 58 related to council and ward work, 10 related to my non-council work and 13 were to friends and family
  2. Visited pages at BBC News, Department of Communities and Local Government, London School of Economics, Local Government Information Unit, Angry People in Local Papers, Literature and Latte, The Guardian, Wikipedia, Liverpool Council and YouTube
  3. Downloading an application from the Mac App Store (Byword, it’s excellent.)
  4. Automatic back-up using an offsite service.
  5. Syncing my Dropbox folder (a great free service, sign up with this link and we both get a bit extra for free.)

I’m sure this information is as interesting to you as it is useful to the security of the nation.

Without knowing the content of those emails it’s both boring and useless. I might have emailed my wife about my secret plan to blow up the Thames riverside by igniting sewage gases.

Or I might have dropped her a line to let her know a delivery had arrived.

Of course, if the security services knew I needed monitoring they could apply for a warrant to see the content: but that’s exactly what they do now.

The proposals seem to amount to little more than a massive intrusion into privacy with the only benefit being to save the security services (and a lot more) a little administrative effort. And all the while using the excuse of national security; overlooking that nasty scary things like terrorism seem to have declined without a police state in any case.

The idea of the state having access to our emails and internet activity without independent oversight should shock everyone to the core. You might trust the current government with this information, you might not. But what about the next government, or the one after that? The principle of personal freedom and liberty is an absolute.

Even assuming our traditions of liberal democracy counter the potential of authoritarian government it is a worrying intrusion of our privacy and contrary to the notion that we are a free, liberal democracy. I am astounded that the proposal comes from a government that should be respecting and promoting the primacy of the individual over the state. I know there can be an authoritarian streak in the Conservatives, but thought one of the benefits of the coalition was the Liberal Democrats would check it.

What troubles me most of all, however, is the number of people who are so used to this sort of erosion of civil liberties that they not only trot out the ‘nothing to hide’ line, they even believe the surveillance of a populace is the price to be paid for security. As dangerous as the all-powerful state is, a submissive population that does not value its rights is worse.

Thanks to the leaflet the Met popped through my door the other day I know exactly what to look out for to prevent terrorism.

I’m reassured that I’m playing my part, looking out for people who have “bought or hired a vehicle in suspicious circumstances.” or who hold “passports or other documents in different names for no obvious reason” (my emphasis), you know, the sort of things you wouldn’t have thought in any way odd before the leaflet (or this blog post) told you.

Cleanliness is next to terroristness

While not quite as bad as the 2009 campaign which wanted you to shop your neighbour if they were doing too much washing up it still seems based on the idea that you should automatically fear something that’s outside your normal range of experience.

My problem with these annual campaigns is two-fold.

First, they are useless. “It’s probably nothing, but…” is more an invitation to report anything, than it is practical advice to a community. It is so vague and generic as to be useless. Should I fear my neighbour, because he has fertiliser and a large vehicle? Or should I see if his gardening business could give my back-yard a quick once over? If the Met were serious, they’d be looking at far more practical advice tailored to the community.

Second, the biggest impact of this leaflet is to spread fear and uncertainty. We can ‘defeat terrorism’, we are told, but it doesn’t really put the problem into a context. Terrorist attacks are gruesome, high-profile and incredibly emotive, but looked at objectively represent a miniscule fraction of human activity. As Dan Gardner pointed out over a year ago, terrorism in Europe has been declining, and most terrorism aims to further specific nationalist issues (mainly Basque separatism).

What is particularly telling is that the decline is not just in terrorist attacks, but in failed and foiled plots as well. In other words, there aren’t just fewer terrorist incidents in Europe, there are fewer attempted terrorist incidents too.

Of course, you might argue that by creating a climate of fear and suspicion terrorists are unable to operate. I’m not sure I want to live in a society where the majority live in constant fear and suspicion of a small (but exaggerated) minority who would kill them.

According to the Global Terrorist Database there were just four terrorism-related fatalities in Western Europe in 2010, three in Greece and one in Sweden. When you compare it to around 700 smoking-related deaths per year in Wandsworth alone you have to wonder why we are so keen to create fear of terrorism.