During the coalition government, we have seen Home Secretary Theresa May speak out numerous times on the importance of national security and how our Internet must support this. We have also heard David Cameron calling for tech giants to “do more” to assist law enforcement, a clear vote-winner. However, beneath the laudable rhetoric lies a hidden risk to our liberties, clearly jeopardised by our “if you have nothing to fear, you have nothing to hide” society. Whilst knee-jerk reactions can be expected in the corridors of power, especially when countering terrorism and paedophilia, we have to be careful we aren’t giving away too much too easily.
Tech companies have responsibilities to the societies they operate in, and that is why we have laws and regulations. When governments wish to change the terms and conditions within which these firms practice, legislation is scrutinised in the House of Commons and voted on in the democratic fashion. In this way, the will of the country is represented: if a majority of publicly-elected MPs favour an amendment then one would hope this is for the good of the nation, party politics aside. However, if laws do not dictate an action, it is improper for ministers to bully private companies to comply with their demands. This is particularly true when it pertains to sharing citizen’s personal data with intelligence agencies, regardless of whether this is in the name of national security. If you want more data then propose a bill, so that the country can decide rather than a cabal of government ministers.
Rhetoric and reality often diverge: the Prime Minister has previously considered bans on online encryption and the Conservatives have promised to age-restrict pornographic sites if they win on May 7th. Both measures would be technologically infeasible, with tools such as foreign VPN services offering simple circumvention. In opposition, Ed Miliband might commit to an ethical privacy approach in his upcoming manifesto, but Labour didn’t have the best record whilst in government, introducing and updating RIPA in 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006 and early 2010. The Lib Dems fortunately appear to be contesting abuses of surveillance power, and hopefully the Green Party would take a similar stance. Worringly, the rise of UKIP could signify a step in the opposite direction, with their populist-but-popular policies likely to favour blunt law enforcement over public liberty.
National security is of great importance, and this should never be understated, especially in the current context of increased Russian nationalism and conflict in Iraq and Syria. However, British citizens have fought for centuries for the rights we have today, and these rights shouldn’t be discarded through fear and confusion. Politicians are increasingly using Twitter and social media to present to their electorate, but few truly understand technology and have the subtlety required for these new challenges. Whilst we don’t expect a cabinet full of computer scientists, greater representation from technically-literate MPs in the House of Commons would be welcome. As kids today grow up with ubiquitous Internet and 64GB iPads, hopefully this change will naturally occur over time.
Whoever you vote for on May 7th, don’t be fooled by slick rhetoric, whether on technology or any other issue. Read the manifestos. Think critically about the feasibility of election promises. Consider where funding will come from, and don’t expect billions to appear from increasing departmental efficiency. Engage with your local candidates; after all, they are the ones that represent your views in front of the country. And don’t be quick to make a decision, but challenge your own views and assumptions. Every major party is looking to get the best sound-bite, but good presentation does not equal good policy.
And for my personal, and rather unlikely, election prediction. The Conservatives will narrowly win and rely on a confidence-and-supply deal with the DUP and possibly another small party. Following this, Labour and the SNP will pass a Motion of No Confidence at the Queen’s Speech, and then proceed to govern awkwardly through another unofficial alliance. The Lib Dems will lose seats but not drastically, the SNP will colour Scotland yellow, the Greens will make modest gains, and UKIP will suffer at the hands of the First-Past-The-Post system and gain surprisingly few seats. Possibly...