British government seeks more surveillance powers


London, The Arab Weekly – 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.

This article was originally published here.