Quoting witnesses out of context shows why the ISC should be reformed

Last October Big Brother Watch was invited to give evidence to the Intelligence and Security Committee as part of their inquiry into privacy and security post Snowden.  Our invitation was based on the written evidence that we had submitted, which you can view here.

On the same witness panel as myself was Isabella Sankey the Director of Policy at Liberty, Dr Eric Metcalfe on behalf of JUSTICE and Hanne Stevens the interim director of Rights Watch UK.

As part of the session an exchange took place with the then Chair of the Committee, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, regarding the benefit or not of the collection of bulk data.  Rifkind posed a blistering range of questions which led to an inference that the witnesses believed that as a matter of principle we were on the side of terrorists.

This line of questioning and our subsequent responses have been presented in the ISC’s report and in some areas of the national press as a fait accompli  that the civil liberties organisations in the UK believe that terrorism is a “price worth paying” to prevent mass surveillance.

This is frankly a disgrace.  Adopting a line of questioning with the intention of putting words into the mouths of witnesses should not be the behaviour of a Committee.

The small part of the evidence session that has been reported on was particularly heated, with members of the ISC, including its then-Chair Sir Malcolm Rifkind, asking us whether there were any circumstances under which we would agree with mass surveillance. Our answer was then, and remains, no.

As you can see from the exchange below, my agreement in this line of questioning was with the argument that Dr Metcalfe had made, not the question that was posed to Ms Sankey:

Chair: Let me finish my question, please. Then you will have an opportunity to answer. If evidence emerged through bulk interception that even you acknowledged had led to terrorists being arrested or prevented from carrying out their objectives, are you saying that, as a matter of principle, you believe so strongly that bulk interception is unacceptable in a free society that you would say that that was a price we should be willing to pay, rather than allowing intelligence agencies to use bulk interception methods?

Isabella Sankey: Yes.

Dr Metcalfe: Yes. Just as you would solve a lot more crimes if you had CCTV in everyone’s houses, and if you opened everyone’s mail and e-mail and read it on a daily basis. Yes, you would solve a lot more crimes and a lot more terrorists would be in jail; that would be a good thing, but it would be bad for our society as a whole.

Q29 Chair: And that is the view of your colleagues as well?

Emma Carr: Yes.

This was, in part, the basis of the inquiry – where should the line be drawn between privacy and security?  There are two opinions on the issue of when the intrusion into people’s privacy takes place.  One view, which is ours, is that intrusion at the point of collection could create the potential for a breach of privacy, the other view is that the intrusion only begins when a communication is read.

We, along with most members of the general public, are completely supportive of targeted surveillance investigations.  However we do not support the mass collection or reading of innocent people’s communications.

We are of course disappointed that the ISC has decided to use the precious air time provided to debate these issues to target the privacy campaigners rather than discuss the more pressing issues, including the failure of the Committee to present any evidence to show that mass surveillance on UK citizens has saved lives. However, this is unfortunately what we have come to expect from our spy agency watchdog.

This is not the first time that the ISC has acted in this way. Their report into the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby had 59 scathing conclusions and recommendations into the conduct of the spy agencies and law enforcement.  There were 7 recommendations regarding the actions of a social media company.  Yet the report was presented to the public and the press as an outright attack on the work of the technology companies, pinning the responsibility for all the failings squarely on their door.  In the case of yesterday’s report, the finger pointing has been made at the liberty organisations to distract from the lack of true investigation or root and branch change.

David Davis MP recently accused the ISC of being a “spokesman” for the spy agencies, rather than acting as a watchdog.  It is this sort of ploy, putting words into the mouths of privacy campaigners rather than putting its efforts into proper scrutiny of the spy agencies’ that has led Mr Davis and many others to reach this conclusion.

In light of this, we urge people to read the full transcript of the evidence session, which can be viewed here, in order to fully understand the conversation that took place.

Emma Carr, director of Big Brother Watch