Sense and security: Surveillance is crucial to our safety, but not at any price


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The Independent Online

If there was one observation in David Anderson QC’s masterly report on anti-terrorism legislation with which we can all agree it was that the present conglomeration of security laws is “incomprehensible to all but a tiny band of initiates … and – in the long run – intolerable”.

Mr Anderson, a specialist in EU law, was called in by the Government in 2014 in the wake of the revelations by the whistleblower, Edward Snowden, of mass surveillance. His 373-page report, A Question of Trust, had sections to please both sides of the argument.

He did not accept that the terrorism threat we now face is “unprecedented” and questioned whether the intelligence services need the power laid out in the Government’s proposed “snooper’s charter” to fish through people’s web browser histories to see what they have been looking at online. Shami Chakrabarti, of Liberty, praised it as a “thoughtful” report that “could be the beginning of rebuilding of public trust in surveillance”.

On the other hand, Mr Anderson has upheld the practice of gathering bulk communications data, which he says has already thwarted more than one potentially lethal terrorist outrage. He also controversially suggested that control over the intelligence services be transferred from politicians to judges, an idea on which the Home Secretary, Theresa May, did not sound keen.

Anti-terrorism laws are indeed a mess. They have not kept up with changing times, and Mr Anderson’s call for new overriding legislation is to be supported. While a minority of the population remains deeply suspicious of the “spooks” who monitor internet traffic, most people would instinctively tolerate a certain amount of snooping if it could prevent outrages like the London bombings of July 2005, or the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby. David Anderson has done a good job of opening up public debate on how these competing anxieties can be allayed.