“O you who believe, do not enter any houses other than your own homes unless you seek permission and greet their inmates with peace. That is better for you, perhaps you may take heed.”
“Those who are faithfully true to their trusts and to their covenants; and those who strictly guard their prayers. Those are the inheritors, who shall inherit Paradise.”
“Irving Kristol came up with the solution that has become the cornerstone of neoconservative politics: use democracy to defeat liberty. Turn the people against their own liberty… if you can convince people that liberty undermines security, they will gladly renounce it.”
On the day US war crimes whistle-blower Chelsea Manning was released from military prison, CAGE’s international director Muhammad Rabbani was charged for essentially refusing to hand over passwords to devices holding confidential information. This followed his arrest at Heathrow airport in November – despite being told there was no reason for his detention under the unjust Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000.
Rabbani’s arrest and his principled decision to withhold passwords against the threat of imprisonment has implications which ripple across the security paradigm enveloping the Western world.
Background to Today’s Surveillance State
Against the frightful scenery of rising fascism in the West, societies are closing down inch by inch. The War on Terror has ushered in a period in which rights and repressive Western states clash, with the former often acquiescing against the backdrop of indifference born of a fear-imbued public.
Neoconservatism, which endeavours to subvert, nurture and nudge laws and policies often through deception and emotional exploitation of tragedies in the direction of a closed, fascist one, has found a dangerous catalyst with the populist rise.
Continuing this fashioning of the closed society, there has been a concerted effort in the UK to control the online sphere and manipulate data – or intelligence – that is being harvested.
With Edward Snowden revelations sending shockwaves in terms of what shadowy governmental organisations were engaging in (bulk interception of call and online communication data), there was an attempt to salvage reputation and intrusive powers in a retrospective fashion. The recipe was and continues to be the tried and tested liberty-through-security solution: your freedom is only safe if it is handed over to the state. In 2014, the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (DRIPA) was fast-tracked through Parliament as “emergency legislation”. Academics decried it as a “series expansion of the British surveillance state”. With the expiration of DRIPA, Theresa May tabled the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 (IPA), an even more draconian law which Snowden called “the most extreme surveillance law in the history of western democracy”. It was enacted without any resistance and against the backdrop of “Islamist” fearmongering.
Ways to protect oneself from an invasive state/corporation symbiont the digital realm has also increasingly come under attack. While IPA was going through Parliament, David Cameron expressed his desire to “ban”/undermine encryption. The discussion surfaced again in light of the March 2017 Westminster attack. The Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, a former member of the Political Council of the hate-financed, neocon Henry Jackson Society, used the event to call for increased state powers to back-door access encrypted messaging services. Recent reports reveal that the government is attempting to see this through as it discusses plans for more extreme surveillance with GCHQ/Mi5 and technology companies. The proposals include “real-time” surveillance of web-users’ internet communication and the strong-arming of technology companies to build backdoors into their products enabling intelligence agencies – and criminal or shadowy elements – to read people’s private messages. Encryption or any other future “electronic protection” would become useless.
All of this intrusion and digital denuding has drastically worrying consequences. The idea of a protected right against the state is completely obliterated as this idea becomes completely subsumed into a thinking that argues that giving up your privacy and making lives transparent will protect you. But the question remains, who will protect against questionable and manipulative elements of the state? There is still an unsatisfactory response to the reality of a country with super-invasive powers being ruled by someone like Donald Trump.
Indeed, big data can form the basis for whole communities being targeted and democracies being disrupted.
Within schools, there has been controversy related to collecting census data for the “national pupil database” which includes questions on country of birth. Despite assurances from the Department for Education to the contrary, the Home Office shockingly requested schools data on 2500 pupils specifically for “racist” immigration enforcement.
Then there is the national Census data. The latest set was forcibly extracted from the UK population and managed by a military corporation. The racist, white supremacist Casey Review on integration used the Census data to propose dangerous assimilationist policies (mental and physical “integration” with “majority” population and “British values”) which targeted specific communities based on demographic data. It remains a disturbing example of how data can be manipulated by the state to perpetuate demonisation against minorities.
The brilliant Carole Cadwalladr provides yet another chilling example of the consequences of mass data exploitation and its intersection with the far-right elements that are constitutive of the US government and private firms. Cadwalladr demonstrated how one “dystopian data company” that was implicated in a web of white supremacy supporters like Robert Mercer, Steve Bannon, Arron Banks and Nigel Farrage, underhandedly “managed” British democracy and ultimately produced the Brexit result. One of the linked firms (AggregateIQ) was used by the campaign strategist for Leave Vote and a close friend of Michael Gove, Dominic Cumming. Pertinent to our discussion are the following revelations:
“Documents seen by the Observer show that this was a proposal to capture citizens’ browsing history en masse, recording phone conversations and applying natural language processing to the recorded voice data to construct a national police database, complete with scores for each citizen on their propensity to commit crime…
“…The company that helped Trump achieve power in the first place has now been awarded contracts in the Pentagon and the US state department. Its former vice-president Steve Bannon now sits in the White House. It is also reported to be in discussions for “military and homeland security work”.
…Is it unreasonable to see in this the possible beginnings of an authoritarian surveillance state?
With volumes of data being garnered by the UK government, is such a set up inconceivable here too? After all, PREVENT, the premier pre-crime tool of the government is already embedded in state and social structures. Consider that Tony Blair’s charities, under the pretext of “counter-extremism”, are to collect “high-quality data” on mosques and schools in African nations and share them regimes accused of human rights abuses.
The gleaning of personal data, enables the ability to potentially smear and destroy the reputation of dissident individuals or organisations thereby disrupting and demobilising movements and stifling dissent. Neocon think-tanks, which ironically do not wish to reveal their donors, are already supplying information to the Home Office. This information has been subsequently used by Number 10 to target Muslim activist organisations and speakers with the disruptive label of “extremists”. If this can happen by spinning publicly available information, the ways in which targets can be stigmatised and disrupted are increased exponentially thanks to unrestricted access to private data of those who are suddenly and conveniently declared “extremist”.
The work involving sensitive information related to victims and clients all of sudden can become compromised and even fall into the wrong hands – which includes the hands of states which share intelligence information with other countries. The fact remains that when governments do feel threatened they will utilise unjust exceptional legislation to manage and control situations. In David Miranda’s case, the government argued a definition of terrorism which was broad enough to include any action or opinion the government did not like.
It is at this crucial junction that CAGE – run by a handful of employees – has not only stepped into the debate but is yanking it firmly in the direction of re-asserting the concept of privacy.
CAGE and “Digital Strip Search”
Rabbani’s contention is ethical: his refusal to hand over his passwords was based on the fact that the material on his laptop contained confidential information relating to a legal case built around alleged torture involving the US intelligence agencies. Rabbani’s client had declined for the information to be released, therefore place him in a scenario where he had to honour the relationship of trust.
Rabbani enunciated his views in the Guardian thusly,
“Forcing someone to hand over their passwords is like a digital strip-search. It is more pervasive than a physical strip-search. With a digital strip-search, it’s not merely the possessions you carry that are searched, it’s all your personal and professional life that’s online.”
Such measures in other words, contribute to intelligence and data gathering which has far-reaching consequences people other than the one being detained. Release of the information could negatively affect those whom already victims.
Rabbani’s actions have implications that are greater than himself. It’s a mounted defence for all those who deal with sensitive information and wish to maintain client confidentiality. It represents the foundations of a blockade that civil society must erect if it is to reverse the tide that is eroding the very notion of privacy at an alarming rate. It signifies the beginning of a much-needed paradigmatic shift that corrects the woefully askew liberty-security balance and protects the individual against an ever-intrusive, ideologically paternalistic state.
CAGE organisationally operates in lonely waters. Every time CAGE has made a mould-breaking intervention in a hostile political landscape, it has done so on grounds of principles which the government has a track record of crippling since the War on Terror. It has done so in a climate of repression which harks back to the McCarthy era. Whether it is a discussion on torture, state harassment, or the baselessness of PREVENT, CAGE has always left its mark. With Rabbani’s deeply empowering stance, history will recall a Muslim who risked imprisonment for principles that protect us all. And for this – CAGE – must be supported.
 Noble Qur’an, 24:27
 Noble Qur’an, 23:8-11
 (Drury, S.B. The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2005, pp.xxvi-xxvii)