The would-be killers of Charlie Hebdo (click here for some of the cartons from the resurrection)
are in danger of achieving their objectives:
• an unprecedented propaganda coup (for such a tiny, ill-funded group),
• glorious martyrdom, (gunned down in a hail of bullets) and
• a display of global hypocrisy leading to an exploitation of groupthink to justify a massive diversion of resources into expensive and ineffective displacement activities that could cripple the “real” enemy of the violent extremism – freedom of thought and expression.
I was troubled by calls for global “solidarity” under the banner “Je Suis Charlie”. I was rather more impressed by the thinking behind “Je ne suis pas Charlie: Je suis Ahmed”
How do we “exile”, or at least expose and isolate the heretics (of all religious strands) who genuinely believe they have a right (or even duty) to kill in the name of their selective interpretation of the word of God. Hence the reason for my Christmas Blog on The Amman Message . The hollowness of UK claims to be serious about “the war against terror” is exposed by the failure to insist that such a uniquely authoritative collective message is used by Ofsted as one of the yardsticks for reviewing the content of muslim religious education in UK schools.
I have also been long concerned by the shallowness of debate about the meaning of the “Freedom of the Internet”. At School and University I was taught that “Freedom” is not an abstract. It has to be put into context: freedom from hunger, freedom from fear etc. In the on-line world we need to balance the “right” to free speech against freedom from the fear of trolling and abuse. We also need to give users genuine choice, not just the Hobson’s choice offered by the cartel of global players who run most of the on-line world: tracking our footprints to refine (big data engines) our habits into the new oil, to sell to advertisers but not to provide to law enforcement to help identify and “remove” those who abuse us.
I am not convinced by the calls for blanket powers to address the use of the internet by potential terrorists while we fail to make serious progress with reporting and intelligence sharing at almost any level with regard to almost any type of criminal behaviour on-line. Some years ago I was told that during the run-up to the bombing of the Arndale Centre in Manchester, Special Branch believed there was only one, inactive, IRA cell in Manchester. My informant told me that within 48 hours of the bombing, the local CID had been given details, including membership and meeting locations, of six active cells. The local criminals had no problem with the IRA bombing London: locally was, however, very different.
Last March I chaired a small round table on intelligence sharing. A key point was that law enforcement, including the security services, were drowning in data that they did not have the resources, people or technology to analyse. The suggested way forward was to make it less impossible for “industry” to use its own “big data” processes to filter data to protect possible criminal behaviour (and other abuse that was in flagrant breach of their supposed terms and conditions) and pass over that which was relevant in formats that could be easily collated and used. That would , however, require addressing issues of governance and co-operation, including responsibilities, liabilities and priority setting, that people prefer to keep behind closed doors.
We also discussed the need to revisit the current convention whereby the defence can trawl through all of the prosecution’s evidence base. It might have been an important safeguard if we still had capital punishment but we do not and such trawls are clearly being used to identify and silence potential witness and thus reinforce reigns of terror in inner city sink estates dominated by organised crime and street gangs (whether religious or secular or the unholy alliances across the “social” boundaries between the two).
I was among those infuriated by the many falsehoods and inaccuracies in “The Imitation Game” but it did succinctly summarise the dilemma faced by those wishing to keep sources of intelligence secret and those wishing to take action. An illustration of the consequences of getting the balance wrong can be seen with regard to the failure to respond to the original calls for help when the extremists began their take-over of the Finsbury Park Mosque .
The final report of the EURIM- IPPR study into “Partnership Policing for the Information Society” looked at governance issues but failed to come up with recommendations that caught the imaginations of the participants. I revisited the subject in the context of the governance of “big data” (public or private) the in surveillance society when I reviewed the Labour Party Modernising Government study and its call for an ethical dimension.
I was, however, taken aback by how soon the issues would become topical.
I would like therefore to repeat my call for their recommendation to: “Create an ethical framework and governance for ethical issuers around the interaction of the state, its citizens and corporations” to be responded to by the resurrection of the pre-1958 duties of Britain’s third most senior Judge, the Master of the Rolls and his deputy, The Keeper of Public Records . It is an “obvious” way to provide authoritative, credible and (where necessary) public judicial oversight for the surveillance and information security activities of the state and also of the industry players with whom they should be co-operating to address abuse of all types, not just terrorism, over the Internet.
The current mish-mash of under-resourced Information, Interception, Surveillance Cameras and other “Commissioners” and regulators should then “report” to the “Master”. Meanwhile the “Keeper” should be able to draw on the resources of the National Audit Office, CESG and National Archive to enforce good practice in private, while providing the evidence for “public” enforcement by the Commissioners and/or Master should this prove necessary. Of course there is a lot of small print to address. But, in the face of threats from all those who think that our private information is their new oil (alias “big data”) what better way could there be to help counter the similar hypocrisy around the celebrations of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, than to put the data and surveillance activities of the state and of its contractors back under clear judicial oversight and Common (not Roman) law.
We should also remember that proud boast of the last “Keeper of Public Records” that her forbears had provided the evidence to have three of their sponsoring ministers (Lord Chancellors who had fallen out of favour) executed. We no longer have the death penalty for anything but a similarly rigorous approach to the enforcement of good information practice could also do more than any amount of blether to help rebuild trust in the UK as a globally trusted hub for information processing.
There are some interesting side effects.
If it were possible for the Master to also have effective oversight of the intra-UK surveillance operations of GCHQ and Law enforcement it should also be possible to streamline current controls which get in the way of the timely and effective use of intelligence. Many of those controls currently give the worst of all possible outcomes, getting in the way of rapid response (as during the 2011 riots when law enforcement lacked the processes to use the real-time intelligence streaming in on a voluntary basis from communications services) while failing to give public confidence because they are unknown.
The spirit behind Magna Carta gained force in the 17th Century, an age of mass immigration (Huguenots and others fleeing from persecution), mistrust, plots and riots. Sound familiar? Hence the need to take its values seriously. “Je ne suis pas Charlie. Je suis Ahmed.”