Politicians Try to Move Crime Detection “Forward,” but the Real Solution is to Look Back

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The Politician’s Syllogism is one of the most seductive wrong turns those in power can take in the wake of an act of terror. Initially praised for his unwillingness to be drawn into the usual epidemic of jerking knees that breaks out whenever awful stuff happens in Britain, David Cameron is now letting his Laura Norder-loving Home Secretary make the running for him:

The killing of Drummer Lee Rigby has posed a series of questions for the government to grapple with. The central one is this: what more, if anything, can ministers do to reduce the likelihood of other similar attacks?

The answer, Cameron wants us to believe, is the Communications Data Bill. The Bill would give police and security services access, without a warrant, to details of all online communication in the UK: the time, duration, originator, location, and recipient. Other bits of ‘something’ include removing extremist websites from the Internet as soon as they appear and banning radical preachers who—in Britain at least—have a depressing habit of turning up at universities.

Both proposals are seriously wrong-headed: the first because large-scale snooping has thwarted little terrorism and because MI5 and MI6 already have considerable intelligence-gathering powers, the second because it would involve Whitehall engaging in aggressive micromanagement of students’ unions up and down the country.

Time and again—when some terrorist plot is foiled—it emerges that traditional, forensic policing, rather than electronic snooping exposed the plan. Worse, the information gathered—on all of us, not just the relatively few individuals who engage in nefarious activities—is then put to work by other nosy government departments. When Labour enacted the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (‘RIPA’) in 2000, its very wide-ranging electronic interception powers were meant to be used against terrorists and crime kingpins. Instead, however, local councils used RIPA to catch people breaking the smoking ban in pubs, failing to pick up after their dog, or gaming school catchment areas.

Even when the security services acquire the right information about the right people, there is no guarantee that it will be put to good use: both Drummer Rigby’s killers were on MI5’s radar, and one had even been deported from Kenya after attempting to cross into Somalia to attend a jihadi training camp. While government may have great power, it does not posses great competence: in the UK at least, it is Kafkaesque, not Orwellian.

And that, as much as anything, is why Britons should resist this latest manifestation of the politician’s syllogism.