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UK General Election: Security means nothing without freedom

United Kingdom

A man types on a computer keyboard in front of the displayed cyber code in this illustration picture taken 1 March 2017 © REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/Illustration/File Photo

Prime Minister Theresa May doesn’t just put UK citizens at risk, but actively undermines the tools that maintain and expand our rights as citizens, writes Tom King.

I wish we could return to the early days of this general election. It began in an atmosphere of high farce as Theresa May stuck rigidly to her ‘strong and stable’ script. The robotic mantra rang increasingly desperate as the polls tightened and people began to realize she had all the empathy of a stale biscuit dunked into gone-off milk.

But that slogan became bitterly ironic as terrorism has returned to the streets of England’s great cities. The loss of life is a tragedy beyond words. And the timing is surely deliberate: these attacks, beyond targeting popular entertainment and nightlife, are trying to close off what has become known, inaccurately, as the ‘grey zone’. They are trying to turn our colourful world black and white.

That grey zone, of course, is where representative democracy itself resides. It’s a more appropriate term for the umming and ahh-ing of Westminster politics: a place inhabited by far too many grey men and women and thus a place that fails to represent much of the UK’s vibrancy.

It’s a deeply flawed system – almost beyond repair, like the literally crumbling Palace of Westminster itself – but it’s all we have to reassert our political freedom at a time like this.

We seem to have learnt to push back against the intentions of terrorists to disrupt our way of life. The One Love Manchester concert, staged less than two weeks after that attack, showed people’s glorious, defiant joy as they restated their common humanity.

What we now need to learn as a society is to resist attempts by governments to disrupt our way of life in the wake of such disasters. May’s response to the latest tragedy was not a strong and stable defence of our values, but a craven capitulation.

Both the prime minister and her mini-me home secretary Amber Rudd have been all over the airwaves arguing that what we really need to do is to ‘regulate the internet’. Their central thesis is that the combination of a global information network and the ‘safe spaces’ created by encrypted communication is behind the recent attacks.

The way May spoke about this at the weekend made it sound like a fresh new idea in the fight against fear. But it’s actually as old as the hills in political terms. David Cameron began banging the drum for government ‘back-door access’ to end-to-end encryption after the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris in January 2015. And ever since, the Tories have returned to the idea, like a dog to its vomit. Amber Rudd famously described needing experts with access to ‘necessary hashtags’ after the Westminster attack in March.

The policy manages to combine authoritarianism with incompetence and mathematical illiteracy. Unsurprisingly, much of the criticism around it has centred on just how unworkable it would be to implement it. But we must not miss the tide that these waves of draconian idiocy are being carried on.

That tide is a wider focus on mass surveillance that ignores both the realities of recent terrorist attacks and the values on which our democracy and our society rest.

Firstly, the consistent theme of major Western attacks has been that the attackers were already known to authorities. In the London Bridge case, one of them had even appeared in a TV documentary on radicalisation. Human intelligence had also already identified perpetrators of the incidents in Boston, in Paris at Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan, and the murderers of Lee Rigby.

Yet instead of promising to give more resources to cash-strapped police forces and the intelligence services, May doubled down on nebulous new ‘powers’, even though there has seemingly been new terrorism-related legislation in Parliament roughly every three minutes this century.

In doing so consistently throughout her career in government, she spits on the values that protect us best from terror. And she doesn’t just put UK citizens at risk from less secure communication and reduced privacy. She contributes to active attempts around the world to take away some of the most powerful tools we have to maintain and expand our rights as citizens.

Without end-to-end encryption, investigative journalism and wider civil society organizations focused on accountability are sitting ducks for attacks in the digital sphere. Apps that use such technology are vital in protecting sources and internal communications. If recent political campaigns had been using encrypted email, it would not have mattered that they had been successfully phished, as the content of the emails themselves would have remained unknown.

Perhaps I am being too charitable in assuming that Theresa May, Home Secretary for six years, understands this. On one hand, if she does, she is deliberately advocating a policy she knows will make our society less secure and more weak. On the other hand, if she doesn’t, she is so incompetent that basic concepts of security, freedom and technology are beyond her.

Either way, it’s clear we should be afraid of her.

Tom King is Head of Partnerships at the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. He is writing in a personal capacity.

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