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Right to life versus the right to privacy

The Tablet - Fri, Jul 17th 2015

In a sense the Tunisian gunman Seifeddine Rezgui was Everyman. He was not known to be a particularly devout Muslim; an internet video shows this healthy young engineering student demonstrating his break-dancing; he wore a Real Madrid shirt. Yet he has murdered 38 innocent holidaymakers of whom at least 30 are thought to be British. As a result he has nearly shut down the Tunisian tourist industry. This is political and economic terrorism at its most cruel and destructive, and the hardest to combat. How many people there are like Seifeddine Rezgui in Britain or elsewhere in Europe, nobody knows, and picking them out is a nightmare for the police and security services. But they have to try.

In addition to the obvious difficulties, they also face a level of scepticism and even hostility from across the political spectrum every time they seek increased powers. Libertarians of all persuasions are deeply suspicious of the state and its almost unlimited ability to intrude into personal lives. But as the saying goes, “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you”. Abuses of the powers of surveillance and intrusion have occurred, such as the widespread use of the 2000 Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act for purposes that have nothing to do with terrorism. Far too broad a range of public bodies were given the right to intercept confidential communications, so undermining public confidence. 

Extra surveillance is not always bad. The everyday presence of CCTV on British high streets and public buildings has proved cost-effective and reassuring. It has led to the solution of many crimes though it is a resource equally useful in defence of the innocent. Nor is surveillance necessarily technological. MI5 is currently advertising to recruit more mobile surveillance officers, and candidates are told: “A valued member of a diverse team, you’ll follow subjects of national security investigations by foot and by car.” The job required quick thinking and an ability to disappear into the surrounding environment. The basic need for such discreet vigilance is all part of the state’s duty to keep its citizens safe from harm. It may marginally reduce the right to privacy, but that must surely count below the right to life – the right not to be killed in a terrorist attack.

Most controversy centres on the use of advanced technology, particularly the collecting and keeping of information gleaned from listening to phone calls, reading emails and watching website traffic. It requires authorisation by the Home Secretary, a supervisory duty that would be better exercised, as recommended by a recent report, by independent judges. Surveillance of those gathering information is an important part of any anti-terrorism strategy. If the public does not trust it, it will not be effective. And another Seifeddine Rezgui could slip through the net.

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