The Government’s proposals to introduce legislation that would require internet providers to give Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) access to personal emails has, as expected, created quite a stir, with the Big Brother Watch campaign group comparing the new measures to practices in states like China and Iran.

Surveillance is not a new phenomenon, but in the wake of September 11th the raft of new Government ‘snooping’ measures to reportedly prevent terrorism, have sparked outrage from civil libertarians.  This further entangling of national security with civil liberties enshrines the security/liberty debate at the forefront of politics.

However, as surveillance measures continue to become more prominent in society, we must not generalise what is a very complicated issue by assuming that as security increases liberty declines, or vice versa. The tendency to come to this conclusion is not helped by the fact that the debate has become so infected with this perceived logic that even the UK’s National Security Strategy links ‘justice and freedom’ with ‘the basis of security.’  The same can be said of Article 5 of the European Charter on Human Rights which affirms the ‘right to liberty and security.’  These documents play a pivotal role in our lives; firstly in how we guard against terrorist attack, and secondly in outlining the basic rights we are entitled to as human beings.  Yet they contain the language of ‘liberty’ and ‘security,’ both of which are impossible to define.

In today’s context, the impact of the liberty/security equation means that we see policies implemented to improve detection of terrorism attacked on the basis of their perceived impact on liberty.  Conversely by scaremongering about terrorist threats Governments justify putting in place overly restrictive policies. By framing the debate in this way ‘security’ and ‘liberty’ remain diametrically opposed.  If we are going to move forward we must get beyond this viewpoint.

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