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A Denmark-based initiative could be the most strategically potent step yet for privacy rights

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By Simon Davies

COPENHAGEN  Rights campaigners, legal experts, journalists and officials from a range of local professional bodies met yesterday in Copenhagen to map out an innovative Denmark-based initiative aimed at forcing politicians and government officials to speak the truth when they propose intrusive security and policing measures.

The event was driven by concerns that lawmakers and key elements of mainstream media have promoted new security measures through calculated deception. This rationale has degenerated to the point where law enforcement and security agencies such as GCHQ and the US National Security Agency have lied outright to Congress and to Parliaments.

These tactics not only deeply imperil civil liberties, but they could create actual harm to genuine public safety.

Sir iain Lobban: We would never do anything illegal.

Sir iain Lobban: We would never do anything illegal.

The project meeting, hosted by Amnesty International Denmark, is the brainchild of the Code Red initiative and the Privacy Surgeon. Its core aim is to create an international benchmark to test the integrity of government security proposals.

An increasing number of mass surveillance measures have recently been adopted in response to claims of ‘heightened public risk”. These initiatives have invariably been fuelled – at least in part – by irrational, false or populist assertions. Only on rare occasions have such measures been based on a solid foundation of reason and evidence. Importantly, even fewer have been subjected to any form of structured risk assessment. Such legislation is often sold through rhetoric, rather than reason. As a result – in the absence of transparency and accountability – the public could be at even greater risk.

France, for example, this week rushed to adopt a range of intrusive laws – involving little or no judicial oversight protections – that eclipse even those of the United States. Australia has done likewise, with measures that are unprecedented in recent peacetime history.

Participants at the Copenhagen meeting voted to establish an interrogative “tool kit” to force greater honesty and accountability of the claims made by lawmakers. The meeting agreed to develop a process to expose fabrication by officials and MP’s and to help build an “evidence based” approach to intrusive security proposals. This is likely to include a database of political clichés and deceptive catchphrases.

This strategy will involve “flipping” the current default public trust in such claims, to one where policy makers are required to earn trust through disclosing evidence. 

This strategy will involve “flipping” the current default public trust in such claims, to one where policy makers are required to earn trust through disclosing evidence.

The initiative – currently known as “The Integrity Project” – could be a critically important resource for campaigners and opinion leaders who presently struggle to establish a voice of reason over the din of political populism. Rights advocates in such countries as Spain, Italy and Belgium have been overwhelmed by the tide of unstable and intrusive security proposals. Politicians often use obfuscation and secrecy to disguise the absence of evidence to support their assertions.

Police and other law enforcement agencies are equally culpable, frequently replacing fact with lurid illusion and provocative language. Such agencies sometimes appear to make a determined effort to establish an environment of heightened fear and uncertainty.

The project will be led by Simon Davies, founder of Code Red and publisher of the Privacy Surgeon, and Annie Machon, former MI5 intelligence officer turned whistleblower.  The project is the first of several Code Red initiatives that aim to go to the heart of obstacles to the protection of rights.

The Copenhagen meeting considered two key questions. First, to what extent can politicians be challenged about the veracity of the claims they make for the need for new powers? And, second, what techniques are available to media, academics, politicians and civil society to test those claims?

The Copenhagen project aims to create an international frame of reference so that a sharper narrative can be created with politicians and policy makers – one that establishes a test to better ensure that security laws are based on evidence and truth. The framework will include an interactive resource for journalists and opinion leaders to hold governments to account for the claims they embrace.

The Copenhagen project aims to create an international frame of reference so that a sharper narrative can be created with politicians and policy makers – one that establishes a test to better ensure that security laws are based on evidence and truth

. The project will begin life by establishing a methodology based on the Danish experience, and then testing this model at the international level.

The tool kit will include a checklist of safeguards and processes that would help ensure good lawmaking and genuine public safety. These include such questions as:

  • Has a full risk assessment been conducted on the potential negative consequences of the proposed legislation?
  • To what extent have other approaches been considered? Has an options paper been produced?
  • Have any independent parties been involved in assessing the viability and integrity of the proposals?
  • Has the international experience been assessed in terms of outcomes from similar proposals?
  • Has an evidential foundation been developed to prove the necessity of the proposals?

The meeting discussed the procedures and safeguards needed to ensure that countries conform to a model that best ensures the strongest level of privacy. What processes can be devised to create a strong equilibrium between privacy and security?

The Integrity Project will develop an internationally relevant process to ensure that privacy standards can be maintained – especially during times of heightened risk. How, for example, can the principles of necessity and proportionality be protected against the excessive demands of security legislation? One goal will be the creation of a comparative framework to help advocates test the resilience of privacy rights and to maintain pressure on lawmakers to measurably reconcile privacy with security.

The project is likely to focus on at least nine key areas of political populism:

  • Claims about the overall security threat to communities;
  • Claims about security trends at the national and international level;
  • Vague or inflammatory language used to sell security legislation;
  • Claims about the potential benefit of increased security powers
  • Claims about the effectiveness of security measures in other jurisdictions;
  • Assertions about the current effectiveness of security and policing agencies;
  • Assumptions about the “negative” effects of strong data protection on effective security;
  • Assertions about the need for greater volumes of communications and other data:
  • Assertions about the need for increased secrecy in security operations;

A working paper from the meeting will be produced in the next two weeks in advance of a follow-up event in Copenhagen. A subsequent roundtable will then be organised by the Amsterdam Platform for Privacy Research (APPR) based at the University of Amsterdam.