British government seeks more surveillance powers
London - In the same week that a head of the British security service MI5 gave his first live interview, calling for greater surveillance powers, an independent watchdog questioned the thrust of the government’s counterterrorism approach.
In an unprecedented interview with BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on September 16th, MI5 Director-General Andrew Parker warned that the terrorist threat to the United Kingdom is at its highest level in 30 years, largely thanks to the proliferation of internet technologies and the problems intelligence agencies have in monitoring how terrorists use them.
He said police and intelligence agencies had foiled six terrorist plots over the past year. “That is the highest number I can recall in my 32-year career, certainly the highest number since 9/11,” Parker said.
“It represents a threat which is continuing to grow, largely because of the situation in Syria and how that affects our security,” he added, calling for more up-to-date surveillance powers.
“They [terrorists] are using secure apps and internet communication to try to broadcast their message and incite and direct terrorism amongst people who live here who are prepared to listen,” Parker said.
The United Kingdom’s terror threat level is listed as “severe”, which means an attack is highly likely.
British Prime Minister David Cameron’s government has been pushing for enhanced surveillance powers, dubbed a “snoopers’ charter”, something that had been blocked in the last parliament by government coalition partners the Liberal Democrats. But with the Conservative Party having won a majority parliament, analysts expect the government will push for much stronger counterterrorism laws, with Parker’s interview being the first salvo in what is expected to be a protracted battle.
“The government has made clear a new investigatory powers bill is expected soon and Andrew Parker and others are keen to make their case ahead of that,” said BBC Security Correspondent Gordon Corera.
“Parker’s argument is that it’s getting harder for his service to do its job.”
The new legislation, which could be introduced within weeks, would likely include powers that compel phone companies and internet providers to store customer calls logs and browsing history and give security services access to it on request.
While Parker said the intelligence agency needs more powers to screen the more than 3,000 domestic Islamic extremists willing to conduct attacks on the United Kingdom, he also stressed that any new legislation would require greater transparency on the part of security and intelligence services.
Opponents of the Conservatives remain sceptical about the snoopers’ charter, as do phone companies and internet providers, which are concerned about costs and the effect on customer trust, supporting the need for strong judicial oversight.
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s politics means that it is unlikely that he will back a snoopers’ charter, while the Scottish National Party has talked about courting “libertarian” Tories who oppose enhanced surveillance plans.
“The fact that the head of MI5 gave an interview at all shows that the return of a snoopers’ charter is far from a done deal. There is a growing realisation that the security services need to operate with clearer public consent,” said founder of the Open Intelligence Alliance Loz Kaye. Even those who agree that existing surveillance legislation is not up to scratch have expressed concerns about the Conservative Party’s approach to counterterrorism. Shami Chakrabarti, director of human rights group Liberty, acknowledged that the existing surveillance is “inadequate” but said that the government must not be allowed to seek a “blank cheque” for unlimited surveillance.
At the same time that authorities are calling for more powers, other parts of the government’s counterterrorism plan, in particular its counter-extremism efforts, are coming under fire.
The Cameron government has pioneered a new approach, equating counter-extremism with counterterrorism, and is seeking to outlaw even non-violent forms of counter-extremism.
An independent watchdog looking at the proposed counterterrorism laws said restrictions on freedom of speech could have a dangerous backlash.
“If the wrong decisions are taken, the new law risks provoking a backlash in affected communities, hardening perceptions of an illiberal or Islamophobic approach, alienating those whose integration into British society is already fragile and playing into the hands of those who, by peddling a grievance agenda, seek to drive people further towards extremism and terrorism,” independent terror law reviewer David Anderson QC said in his annual report on terrorism legislation.