Monday, January 24, 2011

Surveillance orders: new name, old problems

The BBC announced yesterday that the coalition government is planning to replace control orders, controversial powers introduced by Labour in 2005 which place terror suspects under "house arrest", with a new range of restrictions named 'surveillance orders'. The new orders would give security services the power to:
  • ban suspects from travelling to locations such as open parks and thick walled buildings where surveillance is hard
  • allow suspects to use mobile phones and the internet but only if the numbers and details were given to the security services
  • ban suspects from travelling abroad
  • ban suspects from meeting certain named individuals, but limited to people who are themselves under surveillance or suspected of involvement in terrorism
These proposed changes may initially sound like a reasonable sort of compromise, but they still place heavy restrictions on suspects without any trial taking place, or any burden on the police to provide proof of guilt. This is inconsistent with the fundamental tenet of UK law which holds that suspects are innocent until proven guilty. Unlike subtle surveillance on suspected criminals who don't know it's happening, which impinges on their privacy but not, until sufficient evidence can be brought to charge them, their freedom, these affect both privacy and freedom prior to any trial. It's misleading to rename these powers 'surveillance orders' when they still permit significant pre-trial control.
The debate has proved a source of disagreement within the Conservative party. David Cameron voted against the introduction of control orders six years ago, and recently said that in their present form they haven't been successful. But Michael Howard, who co-ordinated the parliamentary opposition to the introduction of control orders when he was Tory leader in March 2005, demonstrated a U-turn on the 4th of January and spoke out against scrapping them. Even ex-Home Secretary John Reid - who joined Howard a week ago, saying "security must come first" - admitted in January 2007 that control orders are "weak, they are hard for the police to implement [and] they involve massive manpower from the police and security services to try and carry out surveillance."
The New Statesman reports that:
The Lib Dem manifesto promised to abolish control orders; the coalition agreement merely promised an "urgent review". In October, David Cameron was said to have told Clegg that the coalition was heading for a "fucking car crash" on this issue; the publication of the review - which was conducted rather conveniently inside the Home Office by counterterrorism officials - has already been postponed from October to December and now to an unspecified date later this month.

[...] The Lib Dem peer and former director of public prosecutions (DPP) Ken Macdonald has been charged with overseeing the Home Office review. I understand that he has not softened his long-held opposition to control orders: he plans to publish a report condemning any retention of restrictions on a terror suspect's ability to leave his home to meet particular people or visit specific locations.
It is unclear whether the purpose of control orders is even to facilitate successful prosecutions¹, or to render suspected terrorists inoperative through restrictive surveillance. Many civil liberties campaigners, who have seen successive restrictive measures introduced in the name of counter-terrorism, argue that the threat of terrorism is exaggerated to excuse increasing curtailments of liberty. Within the legislative context of stop and search powers which disproportionately affect people of colour, particularly young black men, but which have resulted in no terror charges, terrorism feels like a thin excuse for authoritarian social control.
It is also interesting to see the way in which the proposed surveillance orders tie in with current controversy over digital rights and web censorship. As yet the government have struggled to effectively control the internet use of individuals, despite considerable debate, and legislative changes such as the Digital Economy Act. The clause which 'permits' suspects to use the phone or internet only if they pass on details to the police is particularly worrying. Can we trust the police to only look for evidence of terrorist conspiracy among those details? Or would any form of civil disobedience or political protest become significant?
With the new political category of "domestic extremist" used by the government and police to restrict the movements of activists and make pre-emptive arrests, we cannot trust that these draconian powers would be limited to use on those planning violent terror attacks. Counter-terror legislation has been illegitimately used against non-violent campaigners, young people, people of colour or anyone gathering in public to make a point. There is no reason to believe that surveillance orders would not be used with impunity against anyone the police didn't like.
Most worrying of all, however, is this quote from the BBC:
The government is drawing up tough new anti-terror laws that could be rushed through after a major terrorist incident - in case the new surveillance orders proved inadequate in the face of increased threat levels.
If that doesn't sound ominously like the government waiting for terrorists to provide a convenient excuse to further curtail our freedoms, I don't know what does.
1. We haven't been able to find any figures on the number of successful prosecutions brought about via control orders, or through any other counterterrorism legislation. Anyone who is able to help with this information is invited to get in touch.