Nick Clegg was on the Andrew Marr show yesterday, where he was pressed about his opposition to the retention of internet contact data for 12 months (e-mails, web browsing, electronic messaging etc) to assist the police and security services in identifying and investigating serious crime and terrorism.
In his stubbornness, I suggest, he is potentially putting us all at much greater risk, as the capability of the authorities to conduct investigations shrinks in the face of changes to the communications landscape.
There were two strands to the debate on Marr.
The first concerns the ability of all the “Agencies” to intercept the content and understand all the communications of those who would do our society harm. Few will be troubled by that as long as the process is subject to a suitable robust approval system (i.e. it is warranted).
There is a problem, identified by the Prime Minister, in the agencies maintaining their capability in the face of increasingly diverse electronic mechanisms and social networking “Apps”, some of which are encoded. David Cameron has been talking to the US President about that since most such applications are run by US companies.
Mr Clegg seemed to accept warranted access to content, even if he was, surprisingly, much more hazy on the detail than the Prime Minister.
Where he has more difficulty, it seems, is in the suggestion that, by law, all internet contact data, should be retained for 12 months, for possible use in any investigation.
Mr Clegg talked about a “haystack” of data from all of us. He seems to think it overly intrusive. Would he say the same of records of telephone contacts? We all know they exist. Many people will know the evidence of such contacts (without the content of the calls) is frequently used in solving crime, particularly using mobile phone records. I would be very surprised, for example, if the Metropolitan Police, in their renewed attack on the Madeleine McCann case, have not been using it.
We would all expect there to be a methodology for access to such data to prevent or investigate serious crime or terrorism, and quickly if needed. Why is Mr Clegg treating internet contact differently? The world has changed. My grandchildren almost never make old fashioned phone calls. Does Mr Clegg have no understanding of the speed of change?
The “haystack” analogy stems from evidence my one-time colleague, Andrew Parker, Head of MI5, gave to the Home Affairs Select Committee last year. He described intelligence work as “looking for a needle in a haystack”.
He is right, but to do that we must surely ensure we secure the “haystack”?
The retention of such data for 12 months, is, I think, the very minimum to help keep us safe. Such data is irreplaceable in identifying criminality. There is absolutely no substitute for confirming the threat that an individual presents and for confirming contact with others of like mind.
No other resources can be thrown at the problem to remedy the deficiency. Such data and the patterns of contact are absolutely the first port of call for those tasked with keeping us safe. Why would we want to be without it?
The Clegg argument seems to be that just simple retention of the data is too intrusive. But it is only “intrusive”, surely, if it is accessed in respect of the innocent or if there is insufficient accountability or indiscriminate, unapproved access for trivial purposes? Why would it be like that in the UK? Who would want to do that? For what purposes?
Maybe data would be misused in another society such as Moscow where the spy Edward Snowden, whose mischief around internet data (using The Guardian and other organs) got this hare running harder.
Is Mr Clegg really suggesting a mature democratic society cannot deal with potential misuse in new legislation?
If retention of the data is intrusive, so are telephone records. They have been used for criminal investigations since the telephone was invented, since before automation and computerisation. Since, in fact, the Telephone Exchange Clerk’s hand written “tickets”.
Would Mr Clegg ban retention of those too? What on earth has he got to hide?
For most of us, nothing to hide, means nothing to fear.
The two serious parties of government should put their heads together for once, forget politics and agree a way forward, whoever forms the next government. The matter is too important to do otherwise.
If that means ignoring the Lib Dems, so be it.