HOME Secretary Theresa May is proposing to give police more powers to access data linking electronic devices to users.
The measure, part of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, would enable the police to find out which computer was used to post material which breaks the law, thus, Ms May argues, improving national security. But the proposals are certain to re-ignite charges of invasion of privacy and “snoopers’ charter”.
Britain has prided itself on being a liberal democracy; one with a long and proud tradition of respect for individual privacy, for freedom of speech and with a healthy aversion to a “carte blanche” police force able to snoop at will. These are features we have long defended and are reluctant to surrender without critical and comprehensive appraisal of any move to extend the surveillance powers of government.
But the world around us is changing. And these changes, ranging from terrorist activity to cyber bullying and the sexual exploitation of children, have been considerably enabled by advances in information technology and in particular universal access to the internet. This in turn has brought new challenges to that core function of the state: the protection of citizens from threats to their safety, their wellbeing and their livelihoods. Failure to respect this duty brings an equal public reaction in favour of appropriate surveillance: why is the public not being protected in a manner it is entitled to expect?
A common argument against the extension of surveillance powers is that it would be “the thin end of the wedge”. This is certainly a risk, but one that can be addressed by oversight protocols requiring the police to be accountable for the way such powers were used. The principle of access to IP addresses needs to be considered for what it is, not on what some might imagine it to be. And given the clear and present danger of terrorist activity there seems little justification for standing in the way of the proposal.
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Where critics have a point is on the fine detail – what exactly is being proposed, and the governance procedures to ensure the measures are used appropriately. For there are many technical considerations that arise on the effectiveness of measures to track the owner or recipient of dangerous or threatening material. The police may be said to already enjoy access to social media accounts, call records and location trackers of personal devices. But this access may prove to be useful only up to a point: people can use devices registered to others, IP addresses can be easily manipulated, or multiple temporary devices employed. In a variety of ways the culprit may be different from the registered user of the device.
To deal with this difficulty the police may seek powers wider than the original remit. These are the issues on which a properly constituted “safeguard” body will need to exercise a keen and constant vigilance.
Island communities deserve support
News that the Isle of Gigha Heritage Trust is facing considerable financial problems with debts reported at £2.7 million is a disappointing development. It reinforces a truth evident across rural Scotland that land stewardship and community development, whether undertaken privately or by community buy-outs, are highly demanding and expensive commitments requiring investment that may take years to bear fruit.
However, dismaying though the onset of financial problems may be, it should not blind us to the improvements that have been wrought: Gigha’s population has increased from 98 to about 170 since the £4m buy-out in 2002; neglected properties have been improved; 18 social homes and 12 private homes have been built, there is a community owned wind farm and new businesses have been set up.
The financial problems are said to stem from the £1m that had to be repaid within two years as part of the condition of sale – but this was a clearly foreseeable event for which provision should have been made. This notwithstanding, the community is deserving of some further advisory support that would make the burden more manageable.
Beyond this, there are two difficulties for Highlands and Islands Enterprise and the Scottish Government. The first is to ensure equity of treatment, given pressures to find other community buy-outs elsewhere in Scotland: the administration has ambitions to double the number of acres of land sold back to communities by 2020. The second, altogether more problematic, is that of the evident constraints on financial resources, particularly when budgets are as tight as they are now. It is up to the Community Trust to draw up a financial plan to see it through its difficulties if its future is to be sustainable.
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