Security vs Human Rights Debate at the Edinburgh International Book Festival

THE challenge of protecting individual privacy and human rights, in a time of increasing state surveillance through the internet, dominated Security vs Human Rights debate at the Edinburgh International Book Festival last night.

Discussing the subject before a packed audience was human rights campaigner and director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti; former Lib-Dem leader and MP, Sir Menzies Campbell, and Dr Andrew Neal, Edinburgh University senior lecturer in Politics and International Affairs. Chairing the debate was Professor Charles Raab, also a lecturer in Politics and International Affairs with Edinburgh University.

In setting out their positions on the subject, Chakrabarti said that she believed that the values that emerged from World War II, enshrined in the likes of European Convention on Human Rights (EHCR), represented “the settlement that recognises the liberty and security of the positive obligations of the state” to protect people, and place checks and balances on itself.  She said that anyone who said that there was a trade-off between human rights and security was in her view “a swindler” and was take away something that had been hard-won by previous generations.

Chakrabarti believed that the UK was at junction where it had to choose whether it was a country of citizens with a “few privileges in a small part of the planet”, or part of an increasingly interconnected globe of “human beings with human rights all over the world.”

Campbell, who has sat on the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee scrutinising the state intelligence services, said that the primary responsibility of a government was the protection of its citizens, and included in that was the “protection of the human rights and civil rights”.  He said that privacy and security should not be seen as being in competition but that they were part of “a tapestry of what makes a democratic society”, but raised the question of “what is minimum interference in our freedom that gives us maximum protection?”  He added that technology developments had moved at such a rate that human rights “had to take account of this” but also ensure that security of the public was maintained.

Acknowledging that there was an argument that the internet should be treated as a “private space”, free from state interference, Campbell pointed to the use of it for criminal purposes asking “whether a space which is wholly immune, in which you know these areas of activity were going on, can be one that lawful authority has no access.”  He said that while legislating for this sort intrusion might be unpopular there were times where politicians would have to do it “in the face of public opinion.”

In setting out his views, Neal said that where security has been weighed up against human rights, security invariably has won.  He added, however, that where secrecy was wielded as a tool by the state, it was open to abuse and used to hide wrongdoing or raising undisclosed threats to justify policies such as torture.

This, Neal said, led to a “dilemma of trust” between the public and state, and that it has even led to scepticism towards monitoring committees of the state. The scepticism, he added, had accompanied a wider collapse in deference, of the public towards the state, but also of politicians towards the state.  He added: “Politicians are less willing to defer, more willing to ask difficult questions. The tradition politics surrounding security are changing, slowly and with unknown consequences.”

During the discussion, Chakrabarti asserted that if people were not comfortable with the idea of the state putting cameras and microphones in their homes then they should not be willing to accept the idea of the state carrying out blanket state surveillance.  She added that she believed there was a role for judicial involvement, as there was in the US, in allowing state phone-tapping and surveillance.

Taking issue with Chakrabarti’s analogy, Campbell argued that the sort of criminal activity taking place online, such as massive organised crime, had far greater impact on the public generally than anything that could take place behind closed doors. He also voiced concern about the potential for “judicial activists”, as existed in the US, trying to influence the direction of law.

Concerns were voiced generally, though, that domestic attempts to handle internet security would falter against the global nature of the internet.  Chakrabarti said that there were now “too many secret commissions and secret courts, and there are too many opt-outs from litigation for security services”.  She added: “Everything can’t be open court, I accept that, but we have gone too far into protecting the apparatus of the state from the scrutiny of open court. Secrecy spreads like a contagion.”

Asked how society can start “creeping, sleepwalking into a surveillance state”, the panel agreed that “the tyranny of convenience” with smartphones, digital banking and other forms of labour saving services was preventing this happening.  But Chakrabarti said that while there was currently a market for information, there would also be a market for privacy, and if enough people demanded it, supermarkets and other businesses would eventually offer it.



More articles