Paddy Ashdown on surveillance: don't make us a country of suspects

Former Lib Dem leader questions Theresa May’s investigatory powers bill and makes case for laws to protect an individual’s data as their property.

Paddy Ashdown has voiced his concerns about controversial new legislation spearheaded by Theresa May that will allow every section of the government access to data intercepted from mass surveillance of digital communications.

Questioning the government’s investigatory powers bill at a Guardian Live debate in London, he said: “I thoroughly object to the idea that we will be treated as a country of suspects, [that] all individual communications – the fact of them and the content – is able to be known by the state, and the state controls them as they wish.

“We charge the intelligence services with keeping us safe, so of course they want the maximum amount of power. But the job of a politician in a democracy is to be jealous about giving away those freedoms, and to do so only when it’s necessary. You have to make judgments as to how much infringement of the liberty of citizens there is.”

Addressing the question of how to protect our freedom and rights in a digital age, he offered a “revolutionary” solution. “In civilisation and in democracy, one of the great moments was the ownership of property. Now there’s a piece of property that we don’t own, but it is ours: it’s our data.

“If we were to introduce a law that says every citizen owns their own data, and if you want to use it, you must ask them and pay them a share of the profits, you have completely altered the relationship between these great mega-corporations and the individual. You’re empowering the individuals. Every man and woman can be a lord and master of their own data.”

While Ashdown refused to name the security services organisation that employed him during a stint as a British intelligence officer, he said he was concerned by the shifts in the scope of surveillance and interception since the 1970s. “They took me into a rather large shed as part of our training, and you opened the doors and were assailed by this wave of steam,” he said. “What you then discovered was you were looking at a large shed, bigger than this hall, full of post office engineers, each with a steaming kettle on their desk,” he says. “This was the interception of communications circa 1971-72: the steaming open of citizens’ letters.”

He said today’s challenges called for the same justification and consideration as ever; in any circumstance where the rights of citizens could be infringed, due diligence and a sense of scale were essential.

“The principles that applied in the past ought to apply now. For one of these well-meaning and extremely diligent post office engineers to steam open your letter, you had to be a target: a specific person to whom the security services applied to look at your communications,” he says. “In the case of the interception of communications of a citizen of this country, the level of evidence necessary should be agreed, validated and authorised preferably by a judge, or in some circumstances by a minister of the state accountable to parliament.”

Taking a wider look at the implications of increased surveillance he said: “We’re fighting these battles [against terrorism] for the preservation of our liberties and our freedoms. If we give those away wholesale as I’m afraid we will in these circumstances, then we are allowing the terrorists to win the battle without a single shot.”

Originally published by The Guardian. Image above by James Drew Turner for The Guardian.

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