Hilary Benn MP sent me the email below in response to a request for him to support the Don’t Spy On Us Campaign and to push for Parliament to launch an independent inquiry to recommend legislative reform on this issue.
“The revelations of Edward Snowden are and should be the subject of vigorous public debate. As ever in these matters, particularly where security is concerned, there is a balance that needs to be struck, and the law needs to make sure that it keeps up with technological development. Given that three of the London bombers came from, or worked in, our community I want the police to be able to stop that kind of terrorism which claimed so many lives in London that day. But there has to be proper public and Parliamentary oversight.
On police surveillance operations, I share your concern not least because it has been reported in the newspapers that one of the protesters who tried to occupy my constituency office a decade ago was in fact an undercover police officer dressed in a clown’s outfit!
I have been trying, since this became public, to get an answer from the Home Office and the police, but to date none has been forthcoming. There are of course occasions when it is wholly legitimate for the police to undertake undercover operations – for example in investigating terrorism and violent crime.
Finally, in spite of all the concerns you express, I really don’t think that we are living in a police state. You only have to look around the world to see what a real police state looks like.”
I asked Hilary Benn a couple of follow up questions, but he would not be drawn on whether the advent of mass un-targeted surveillance, which is one of the classic features of police states, moves us closer to becoming a police state. He also didn’t give a view on the dangers of the secret services driven assumption that “more data means better capability to prevent terrorism”. More data requires more resources (which we don’t have) to store and process it, and an increase in statistical errors such as seeing patterns where there are none and missing patterns that are there, as discussed by Professor Mark Harrison. The police and secret services knew about the 7th July 2005 bombers – three of whom had strong connections to Hilary Benn’s constituency – but were still unable to stop the attacks. Would mass-surveillance data have made any difference? It was interesting to note that the Liberal Democrats voted overwhelmingly in favour of a digital bill of rights that would prevent the government from embarking on the “bulk collection of data”.
Hilary Benn did express his support for the judge-led public inquiry announced in the last few days into undercover police spies.