The state surveillance debate (or lack of)

Peter Kirwan writes for Wired:

When Nick Clegg emerged this week to welcome “a debate” about government eavesdropping powers, he resembled a lollypop man trying to direct traffic around Hyde Park Corner.

Largely this was because the debate had started without him 72 hours earlier, when the Sunday Times alleged that the government plans to secure “on demand”, “real time” access to communications data flowing across the nation’s IP networks.

Most of the traffic charging past Clegg’s stop sign was generated by privacy campaigners. All week, the members of this shoestring army — Big Brother Watch, Liberty, NO2ID, the Open Rights Group and Privacy International — have found themselves quoted endlessly. Their rolling bombardment of a largely inarticulate government has been impressive.

Around these campaigners, concern about state surveillance runs right across the political spectrum. David Davis MP, who resigned from David Cameron’s shadow cabinet four years ago to fight a by-election campaign in which he highlighted threats to civil liberties, thinks this is the start of something much bigger.

Davis, a former home secretary, had the confidence to look to Germany for inspiration this week. In 2010, he noted, 35,000 Germans emerged victorious after taking legal action en masse in the Supreme Court against an EU-inspired law that forced ISPs to retain data for intelligence purposes.

Although Britain’s data retention law remains very much in force, Davis expects that “the same thing” will happen in the UK if the government attempts to further extend surveillance powers. One possible way of mounting a legal challenge involves Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees the “right to respect for. . . private and family life. . . home and correspondence”.

Devil-may-care Brits acting like privacy-obsessed Germans? The European Convention acting as a backstop against an overmighty British government?

If the press reflects the public mood, these things may come to pass. This week, some of Britain’s newspapers responded to news of the surveillance plans with aggression of a kind that would have been impossible in the heyday of Al-Qaeda.