Henry Porter v Malcolm Rifkind: surveillance and the free society

The Observer publishes an exchange of letters between Malcolm Rifkind and Henry Porter. Mr Porter opens:

Dear Sir Malcolm

A few years ago we were on the same panel talking about Labour’s plans for the ID card and the threat to personal privacy that it entailed. You had to leave, so did not hear my words about personal privacy being the defining quality of a free society. I have little doubt you would have agreed with them, for what I said was uncontroversial to any democrat.

You were in opposition then. Today, as the Snowden revelations show the extent to which the American and British governments are spying on their citizens, you are sounding a very different note – one that is surprisingly authoritarian for the head of parliament’s intelligence and security committee, which after all is charged with representing the public in the oversight of the secret activities of the intelligence agencies.

Without even acknowledging the misuse of Labour’s terror laws, you say the police were correct to detain Glenn Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, at Heathrow for nine hours, and you further insist that the government was within its right to threaten the Guardian’s editor and send technicians into these offices to destroy computer hard drives. You claim these actions weren’t to save the government embarrassment, but to protect the country from terrorists. We all agree that some things have to be kept secret but the revelations these past two months have not been about the fight against terrorism, rather the near-total surveillance of all private communications, involving the collaboration of the internet giants, computer manufacturers and telecommunications companies. There can be few things of greater public interest in a democratic society, yet the government tries to suppress the story and does not even acknowledge these concerns.

This isn’t good enough in a free society.

The slew of terror laws passed after 9/11, both here and in the US, have been used to vastly extend the power of the intelligence services, and this has largely gone unrestrained and unscrutinised by committees like yours. In America, there has been a degree more concern in the political establishment than in Britain, and President Obama has announced a full review of the NSA’s surveillance programmes. But here the ISC has been alarmingly compliant. Following revelations about the Prism eavesdropping programme in June, the ISC held a brief inquiry that exonerated GCHQ and did absolutely nothing to raise concerns about the under-appreciated powers granted to the agency by Labour’s Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.