World War II is long over, but the fight against oppressive, invasive state laws continues

Back in charge. Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

The 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe also brought victory in Britain for the Conservative Party, which garnered a slim Commons majority with 36.9% of the vote. The change of government has implications for technological fields, from investment in infrastructure to the use of surveillance, encryption, and big data.


Sadly much of what passes for technology policy is likely to be driven by the Home Office, such as home secretary Theresa May’s obsession with the thoroughly discredited Communications Data Bill – aka the Snoopers’ charter.

No matter how many times the dangers of mass surveillance and the many ways it fails in its aims are explained, the largely technologically illiterate residents of Parliament never seem to understand. Ministers tend to avoid understanding something when their jobs or even the opportunity to become Tory leader depend on their not understanding it.

Effective law enforcement and intelligence work is complex, messy and difficult. Unfortunately ministers, under the gaze of the 24-hour news media, want only clear and immediate actions and apparent solutions, even when those solutions amount to security theatre.

May wants to be seen as tough on crime and terrorism and is determined to give the security services everything they need. Such unqualified support for the secret services may find approval in the UK but sends shivers down the spines of continental Europeans, a fair proportion of which are nations with all-too-recent experience of totalitarianism.

Law enforcement and security services need to use modern digital technologies intelligently in their work, focusing their information systems and energies against individuals about whom they have reasonable cause to harbour suspicion. Mass surveillance of the entire population is neither proportionate nor effective as a security strategy. Legal safeguards should dictate the security services’ operations, not the other way around.

The UK parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee recently declared “bulk collection” of communications data acceptable because most data is only ever “seen” by computers. By that measure, perhaps Home Office ministers should install multiple CCTV cameras in every room in every building in the country – which would only be monitored by computers, of course.

Not once in the 14 years since the dreadful attacks on September 11, 2001 has any mass surveillance regime on either side of the Atlantic demonstrated itself to be a magic terrorist-catching machine capable on its own of pre-emptively identifying a terrorist suspect.

Big data and privacy

UK governments have a poor record at managing data. The promise of medical breakthroughs has led to a push on the use of big data in healthcare, despite the potential privacy pitfalls. Making medical data available to researchers and industry is considered a clear win for many Conservatives due its potential commercial applications.

Labour’s now largely dismantled NHS National Programme for IT was arguably the largest-ever government IT disaster, costing more than £10 billion to deliver almost no usable improvements.

However Conservatives are keen to press forward with further privacy-invading centralisation of medical records and the ill-conceived medical programme.

It’s moments like this that make you realise that it’s win-win for governments to claim they’re “spending more on the NHS”, even if it’s money squandered on IT systems that won’t work and in practice wreak organisational havoc.

There is room for a debate about constructive, socially useful and ethical research using healthcare data. But it should not allow government to circumvent guarantees to privacy. Such research needs to be governed by a set of principles such as those such as those set out in the Nuffield Bioethics Council report on the ethical use of data. For example, treating people as individuals worthy of respect and not as industrial raw material, tell people what you’re doing with their data, consult them properly – and account for what you’ve done with the data and tell people if things go wrong.

Encryption and security

David Cameron found himself the target of much mockery after declaring his desire, like the FBI, to “ban encryption” and require mandatory back doors for security services.

This is little different to every householder being required to deliver copies of their door keys to police. What self-respecting crime syndicate would break into multiple houses when they can break into the police station – or encourage an insider to help them – and get all the keys in one fell swoop.

Encryption is the bedrock of trust and security on the internet and the billions of transactions of direct and indirect commerce each day. There is no such thing as a security hole tailored for the exclusive use of the “good guys”. When you build back doors into communications infrastructure, however well-intentioned you may be, you undermine security for everyone.

Human rights

All these policies involve the sorts of rights and freedoms protected under the Human Rights Act – which the Tories intend to repeal, replacing it with a British Bill of Rights not dictated by unelected European judges. The Tories’ proposals for the Bill of Rights would replicate those protections of the Human Rights Act, but remove judicial protection for those rights judged “trivial”. It’s not clear which protections (right privacy? prohibition of slavery or torture? freedom of assembly and association?) would be deemed “trivial” – or indeed by whom.

They are not abstract ideals with no meaning in real life. They have real effects on real people’s lives. The site illustrates what these protected rights and freedoms mean in practice and debunks various oft-trotted out myths, from terrorists allowed to stay to “unelected European judges”.

Surveillance society

There are many other concerns about the direction we’re headed. But let me ask: given the increasingly authoritarian, fearful, surveillance society we have created in the 70 years since the war in Europe ended in 1945 – and, given the intention to extend and reinforce mass surveillance in years to come, is this really the way to honour the sacrifice of those who died to win freedom and a lasting peace founded on justice and goodwill?

Or, as John Naughton so eloquently puts it, does our indolence constitute “a shocking case study of what complacent ignorance can do to a democracy”?