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Why the terrorist attacks I’ve endured have strengthened my commitment to privacy

APTOPIX Lebanon ExplosionThe Privacy Surgeon’s Simon Davies recalls his brushes with terrorist attacks across the world, the friends he has lost – and explains why he believes the fight for individual liberties is more important now than ever.

Like many of my fellow Londoners, I remember, with vivid clarity the morning of 7th July 2005. More than ten years has gone by, but I’ll never forget that day.

I was living at the time in a rambling old apartment just off Tavistock Square in the city’s central Bloomsbury district. That utterly beautiful area is one of the London’s most cherished historic precincts, once home to the likes of Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, John Maynard Keynes and Virginia Woolf. Even my own humble place was once occupied by the mysterious poet Christina Rossetti. “Tranquil” is the word people often use to describe the area.

The Tavistock Square bus bombing

The Tavistock Square bus bombing

Just before 09.30 on July 7th we became aware of an unusually intense level of activity in the local area. Emergency vehicles were streaming along the nearby roads as the cacophony of sirens grew by the minute. Nothing official was being said on media, but we residents knew something big was happening. Like urban metadata, the weird pattern of sirens signalled bad news.

Before long we started hearing unconfirmed reports of explosions on the London Underground, so I decided to have a snoop around. I took the scenic path southward toward nearby Russell Square tube station, which seemed to be the epicentre of the turmoil.

Within a few minutes I heard a frightening and protracted bang behind me, in the direction of my house. Of course in the centre of London such noises could mean anything, so I didn’t think too much of it – probably just another under-qualified crane operator dropping twenty tons of girders onto the wrong spot. Still, the ground trembled.

By the time I arrived at Russell Square Tube, the area resembled a war zone. No-one was getting anywhere near it, so I headed back along the side path to my house. It seemed everyone was on their mobile phone.

Like urban metadata, the weird pattern of sirens signalled bad news.

Had I instead taken the main route home – Upper Woburn Place – I would have soon witnessed the source of the loud bang. A terrorist explosion had ripped apart a packed double decker bus not a hundred yards from my apartment. Fourteen people had just died in that carnage.

Returning in ignorance to my house, it soon became clear what had happened. It was not just images of the nearby bus – its top blown clean off – that burned into my mind, but the stark details of three deadly explosions that had detonated across the London Underground. Somewhere, underneath our house, 27 people had just been murdered as they travelled on the Piccadilly Line.

52 people died in those terrible attacks, and more than 700 had their lives changed forever through injury. Gazing out of my window, I noticed my old apartment on Gordon Square where, less than four years earlier, the Washington Post’s New York tech correspondent Robert O’Harrow and I had sat together in horror as the events of 9/11 unfurled before us. Now it was happening to me – again.

Anyone close to such episodes of horror usually experiences a “there, but for the grace of god, go I” moment. For me, it was the realisation that had I taken the more familiar route along Gordon Square, rather than along Torrington Square, I would have been fifty feet from where the bus was annihilated – and at more or less the same instant.

This hadn’t been my first such “close call” moment during a terrorist attack. The first was in 1993, during a series of consultations across Belfast.

I had been talking with various factions of Northern Ireland’s horrible war to better understand the nature of the conflict and the sort of conditions that it was establishing for civil liberties. It was a fruitless exercise; the British government officials there thought of me as an Irish Nationalist sympathiser, while the Nationalists suspected I was a Unionist plant. Looking back on those days, I was playing with fire.

shankill road bombing

shankill road bombing

Northern Ireland was an utter mess, as everyone there – and throughout the UK – well knew at the time. Americans who complain of having to live under the threat of terrorism could learn much from thirty years of “The Troubles” in Britain, during which bomb attacks had become routine in England’s major cities. Thousands died in the conflict. Even so, unlike today, civil liberties in the UK remained vaguely intact – even if the motivation for keeping them intact was to prove to the bombers that the British government wasn’t going to let terrorism prevail over rights.

I couldn’t understand why this region was being torn apart. I had also tried to understand the Yugoslav conflict that was raging at the time – and which slaughtered 140,000 people on Europe’s doorstep – but that was beyond me too, regardless of how many people I met in the region. Still, I knew enough about history to judge that there’s no point in proposing safeguards for rights unless you understand the drivers for war.

Americans who complain of having to live under the threat of terrorism could learn much from thirty years of “The Troubles” in Britain, during which bomb attacks had become routine in England’s major cities

Being a younger and more reckless man, I spent my idle hours exploring some of Belfast’s more troubled and dangerous streets. On 23rd October, having just survived the morning ambling around the notorious Catholic controlled Falls Road, I chose to then brave the Shankill Road – heartland of the Loyalist paramilitary.

It turned out to be one of the most notorious days in a notorious war. Ten people died and 57 were injured in a horrific IRA attack on a fish & chip shop that I had passed only minutes earlier. I’d looked into that shop, drooling at the thought of a succulent bag of chips, but the place was too crowded for my liking and so I kept on walking.

I barely heard the blast above the noise of the street, but I experienced a phenomenon that friends in similar moments in time had experienced – an eerie polarisation of human traffic. There’s a rush away from the incident – people running, kids on bikes yelling, cars racing. And then there’s an equally frantic rush toward the incident – again, people running, kids on bikes yelling, cars racing. Twelve long years later I experienced the same effect in London.

Of course that episode was (for me) just one of those fortunate coincidences, but sometimes such brushes can be far more intimate.

Six years later, in April 1999, I was walking with friends along Old Compton Street, the centre of London’s Gay Village. Being a Friday, the place was packed.

It was one of those impossible dilemmas: which trashy, sweaty, noisy, overcrowded and overpriced dive do you choose?

We stood for a while outside a pub called the Admiral Duncan, which I had experienced from past visits. It was rammed, but I told my friends that I knew a little corner bolthole at the back of the makeshift dancefloor where you could usually elbow some space. At least we’d then have somewhere to lay our drinks.

The Admiral Duncan pub after the devastation

The Admiral Duncan pub after the devastation

It was a knife-edge decision, but in the end we opted to move on elsewhere. That choice was clinched through the simple agreement that we despised the Admiral Duncan’s policy of never offering any drinks specials. We frothed with indignation over the rip-off mentality of gay pubs and then settled into a surprisingly quiet wine bar off Leicester Square.

Half an hour later a nail bomb went off in the Admiral Duncan, killing three people and horribly injuring 79 others, several of whom lost limbs. The perpetrator, deranged neo-nazi David Copeland, was subsequently given six concurrent life sentences. This was Copeland’s third and final attack on a public place, in each of which he had planted an explosive bag packed with four inch nails. In this case, the device had been placed less than twelve feet from where I had planned our drinking position.

I knew three of the people who had suffered injuries from that blast.

Back to the events in London of 7th July 2005, and there was much worse news to come. My accountant, Richard Gray, disappeared on that day. His family had reported that he left for work, as always, to catch the underground train to his office in Pall Mall.

It took authorities more than a week to identify Richard. Apparently he had been standing next to the Aldgate Station bomber.

The more you care about security, the more you should care about the values that civil liberties advocates uphold. You should care about transparency and accountability; about integrity and honesty. You should demand that agencies which claim to keep society safe are actually doing their job and not lying.

Richard had helped me through some very difficult times over the years. A caring and gentle man, he never thought twice about going that extra mile for people.

Such terrible instances are what might be termed “first degree” experiences. You can smell the death and the smoke, hear screams, fear for someone lost. Then there are the second degree events, like when my colleagues and I at Privacy International watched speechless as TV reports showed our recently vacated hotel in Islamabad flattened by a massive truck bomb. At times like this you might think “My god… I’ve been there”.

Having experienced both levels, my position on human rights and privacy has not changed. And, again, in my view, it matters little which of those levels of terrorism you experience. The truth is that the fight against unwarranted surveillance, the fight for privacy and the defence of liberty are completely compatible with the aim of creating good security.

Why? Because the more you care about security, the more you should care about the values that civil liberties advocates uphold. You should care about transparency and accountability; about integrity and honesty. You should demand that agencies which claim to keep society safe are actually doing their job and not lying. Sadly, far too many agencies in security and law enforcement are getting away with institutional deception. That’s not just dangerous; it’s also criminally fraudulent and a betrayal of public trust.

This has been said a million times before, but the exposure makes it no less poignant: you cannot defend society by speciously removing its freedoms. As a claimed threat to security rises, so too should the expectation of an open and accountable security sector. Our right to privacy is indivisible from our right to expect genuine safety. As terror levels rise from amber to red, so should the requirement that agencies set out their case on a foundation of evidence, rather than cliches, rhetoric and fear-mongering.

Like many of my colleagues in the privacy realm, I’ve had to deal with accusations by police and security agencies of living in a “fantasy” world of legal theory and safe middle class principle. All of us should be fearless in condemning such attacks as ignorant and self-serving.

 

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