Thursday, July 24, 2008

Counterterrorism's spillover effect

News that an antiterrorism measure intrudes on settled civil liberties at times is met with a shrug. Case in point, a conversation I had with a self-proclaimed liberal law professor not long after the New York Times revealed in 2006 that U.S. officials had engaged in warrantless electronic surveillance. His response? A shrug, accompanied by, "Doesn't affect me."
Keep that response in mind while considering news in Britain: Local governments have been using a counterterrorist tool -- the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 -- to aid investigations with no link to terrorism. The Times of London reports:
Official ‘surveillance’ requests for details of telephone and internet records have surged to 1,400 a day, according to figures published yesterday.
The annual number of ‘spying’ requests for private communications data jumped to almost 520,000 last year, compared with an average of less than 350,000 in the two previous years.
Local councils have been criticised for seeking the information to tackle under age drinking, dog fouling, littering and even to find out whether a family lived in a school catchment area.
Translation: An antiterrorism mechanism's being utilized to police poop-scooping. And here, with inestimable understatement, is the article's next paragraph:
Although local authorities made up only a small proportion of the overall number of requests in 2007, they were criticised for misunderstanding the concept of proportionality in when ‘spying’ is justified to tackle a problem.
This spillover effect ought not to surprise. Nor should it surprise that an inurement to a context-specific curtailment of liberty might engender acceptance of an across-the-board curtailment. Indeed, Britain experienced some of this during The Troubles: measures passed to respond to terrorism in Northern Ireland, having been found to ease prosecution, eventually were embraced for all investigations in all areas of Britain.
Shruggers of the world might want to reconsider their response.

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