Friday, 1 October 2010

Why Jack Straw is arguably an illiberal ass

This post is an archive. The live version can be found on a new blog called Arsehole Justice (no offence).

Jack Straw: A pompous and arguably illiberal ass
Jack Straw. Jack, Jack, Jack, Jack Straw. What can I say about Jack Straw? My distaste for the man has deepened lately. This article really cheesed me off when I read it: ( | Jack Straw waves goodbye with civil liberty attack).

The article refers to Straw's final keynote speech to the Labour conference as he prepares to make his exit from front line politics. Jack Straw would like you to believe that the party that dubbed itself New Labour and governed for 13 years until May 2010 has a "great legacy on equal rights and public safety." I could talk about the Ian Tomlinson police brutality / wrongful death case and equal treatment under the law, but I won't go there. I could discuss the hardships facing professional and amateur photographers simply going about their business in public, but that seems rather trite in comparison. I could even delve into the legislation that ushered in the suspension of habeus corpus for terror suspects. Key word is "suspects." That's the 28 day pre-charge detention which ministers like Straw repeatedly pushed to extend to 48 and even 90 days. I won't go there. There are so many things I could talk about, but I'll focus on a couple of key points that are of particular relevance to the man himself. First of all, what did he actually say in his farewell speech that's got me so worked up. From the article:
"Our great legacy on equal rights and public safety is at risk," he said.

"The Liberal Democrats have conspired to put the Human Rights Act under review. The Conservatives, meanwhile, are going to cut the use of DNA technology and CCTV, and restrict the ability of the police and local communities to fight the scourge of anti-social behaviour. And who will benefit from this madness?

"There'll be greater freedom for the criminal, less liberty for the law abiding. It's crazy," he added.

It seems to me that Jack Straw really hasn't got a clue when it comes to civil liberties. In England and Wales, legislation allows DNA samples to be taken from anyone arrested on suspicion of involvement in a recordable offence and stored indefinitely in what is known as the National DNA Database, whether or not they are subsequently convicted or even charged. This amounts to invasion of privacy and excessive data collection. CCTV cameras are arguably useful in preventing and fighting crime, but may amount to excessive surveillance. Ironically, CCTV footage was used to convict a police officer in Manchester of assault causing actual bodily harm in a widely publicised case last month. But I digress.

Jack Straw believes that the coalition government will give greater freedom for the criminal. The trouble is that many of these questionable laws introduced by Labour serve to treat the law abiding citizen as though he were a criminal. A good example of this is Paul Chambers. You all know Paul Chambers by now. He is currently in the middle of an appeal to overturn his conviction relating to a Twitter update where he joked about blowing up an airport. At the moment, Paul is a convicted criminal. Frankly, if this type of "criminal" has greater freedom under the coalition then that's fine by me.

Here is Jack Straw in Sepember 2001 talking about the new Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) when he was Home Secretary. Please read the full article from page 1. It is quite interesting. Part III of RIPA makes it a crime to fail to turn over encryption keys and passphrases or otherwise allow law enforcement to decrypt target data within a specified time limit. The offence carries a sentence of up to two years imprisonment, and up to five years imprisonment in an investigation concerning national security. This legislation has been widely panned by critics as an assault on liberty, as it overrides the basic right to silence that all suspected criminals are afforded. According to Jack and taken from the aforementioned article:
"It was government trying to put in place increased powers so that we could preserve and sustain our democracy against this new kind of threat," he said in a Radio 4 interview.

"We needed to take powers so that we could de-encrypt commercially encrypted e-mails and other communications. Why? Because we knew that terrorists were going to use this."

Well, that's really no excuse for overriding the right to silence. On page 2 of that article, we read about how CTC officers suggest to a supect during an interrogation that failure to comply with RIPA III would "lead to suspicion he was a terrorist or paedophile."
"There could be child pornography, there could be bomb-making recipes," said one detective.

"Unless you tell us we're never gonna know... What is anybody gonna think?"

Whatever anybody's gonna think is irrelevant. This is not Stalin's Soviet Union. There is a presumption of innocence in our justice system. There are many reasons a person may wish to keep data on a hard drive encrypted. Some teenagers broke into my house a few months ago and stole my laptop, among other things. Had I encrypted my files I wouldn't have to worry about personal information falling into the wrong hands. I wouldn't have to worry so much about indentity theft, for example. This is only one of a number of non-sinister reasons to encrypt data. Others include the protection of trade secrets or intellectual property and the hiding of potentially embarrassing but otherwise legal material.

Basically the physical parallel of RIPA III is that if I am suspected of storing information relevant to my criminal investigation in an impenatrable safe, I must hand over the combination or face a jail sentence. What if I've lost the combination? The obvious comeback against RIPA III is to claim to have either lost the encryption keys or forgotten the passphrases. I have personally lost two PGP private keys and thus rendered the encrypted data useless. I doubt I am alone. Would the police believe a suspect who made such a claim? Probably not. Where does that leave you as a suspect in such a case? Answer me that, Mr Straw. Then feel free to bugger off from public life.

Unfortunately I think the true legacy of Jack Straw and his Blairite buddies is best summarised by Tony Blair himself in his memoirs. Of all the business of Blair's government, the one thing that he regrets the most is... what do you think? The illegal invasion of Iraq? Nope. Draconian terror legislation? Try again. The Freedom of Information Act? Bingo.

1 comment:

  1. There's no "arguably"! We are well rid of Mr. Straw. And David Miliband. And a few others. Don't get me started on David "airy fairy civil liberties" Blunkett.

    There was a huge change in the Labour party before and shortly after Tony Blair arrived. I hope Ed brings another change.


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