As campaigners and activists, we must ensure that our right to protest and hold the government to account is not lost


“As anti-war campaigners we need to be able to hold our government to account: to be free to protest and campaign both online and in the ‘real’ world.”

Civil liberties can become casualties in times of crisis. During the current pandemic emergency powers are necessary to protect public health, but such powers must be limited and scrutinised. As campaigners and activists, we must ensure that our right to protest and hold the government to account is not lost.

In the UK, the emergency Coronavirus Bill was approved with unprecedented haste by parliament in late March, and described by Amnesty International UK, as containing “the most draconian powers ever proposed in peace-time Britain”.

The bill provides no protection for political assembly, gatherings or demonstrations. It enables the NHS to share confidential medical information. It gives police almost arbitrary powers, likewise immigration officers and public health officials. It allows for unprecedented restrictions on our movements and permits unprecedented intrusion into our private lives.

Most of us have willingly signed up to these new restrictions believing they are urgent, necessary and temporary. But what if we find that there is no effective treatment or vaccine for Covid-19 until 2021? Or 2022? And once the immediate crisis is over will the emergency powers be withdrawn?

For activists and campaigners, the restrictions imposed, the possibility of ‘mission creep’, and the use of technology to police, are of particular concern.

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US, national-security laws were amended, secret courts opened and surveillance increased – none of these measures have been rolled back. As the UK joined the ‘War on Terror’ a whole new regime of counter-terror legislation was introduced here too. If the battle against global pandemics is to become the next ‘forever war’ we must act to prevent restrictions, surveillance and censorship becoming the new normal.

So far the new police powers have been applied inconsistently as individual officers and forces interpret their new powers differently, with some being inappropriately heavy-handed. There have been stories of police over-stretching their authority – checking shopping bags, using drones over city parks and queues outside pharmacies – as well as reports of inappropriate detentions and arrests.

Experience with the UK’s counter-terror legislation has shown that such invasive powers are most frequently used on minority ethnic groups. Liberty, the UK’s largest civil liberties organisation, has commented that the new police powers are “particularly concerning for certain communities, and especially people of colour, who are already over-policed and are likely to bear the brunt of these new measures.”

In Stop the War we have long campaigned against the rise in Islamophobia following 9/11 and the use of counter-terror legislation such as Prevent, which shows how easily minority communities become targets.

Other major concerns focus on areas of data and privacy – that as a result of the pandemic populations will allow access to data with limited protection, and that military surveillance techniques will become commonplace in civilian life.

Even before coronavirus London was the second most heavily surveilled city in the world (Beijing being the first). With an estimated 420,000 CCTV cameras, installed in response to the IRA, to 9/11 and subsequent terror attacks, Londoners are among the most monitored people on the planet.  Increasingly cameras are equipped with facial recognition technology.

Activists and protestors have already been recorded and facially scanned, famously an arms protestor took the police to court for breach of his civil liberties after being scanned during a protest at the Cardiff Arms Fair in 2018 – he lost the case. Fear that such measures will impede our right to protest are felt by many.

Big Brother Watch believes the extension of drone use in policing is likely to endure beyond the current crisis. On 15th April, this year the Civil Aviation Authority relaxed air safety regulations on drones, this relaxation is unlikely to be rolled back anytime soon.

The UK’s Automatic Number Plate Recognition network, one of the largest civilian surveillance networks in the world, has also been cited as cause for alarm. In the last month hundreds of motorists have been tracked and fined using the network. Developed as a counter-terror mechanism, this illustrates how measures designed for one crisis can endure and be reappropriated in another.

In February and early March, we learnt how China was using phone tracking as part of its measures to counter the spread of the virus. Although such methods were greeted with alarm by many in the west, it is now clear that NHSX intends to introduce a similar app as we leave lockdown. 

The efficacy of a using a phone app in the UK is questionable – with fewer than 45% of adults over 55 having a smartphone – but there are also significant concerns that apps developed for contact-tracing in the context of the pandemic could easily be abused. Location data reveals sensitive information about individuals, including their political and social networks.

The wide-ranging consequences of phone tracking apps must be carefully weighed up against the immediate medical benefits.

We know that our government has already shared patient data with supermarkets during this crisis, and the presence of Google’s Demis Hassabis on the government’s scientific advisory committee only adds to fears of how our data may be used once the immediate crisis is over.

Another major concern is how the pandemic has been used to close debate and criticism of government.

The promotion of health information is critical at this time – and information must be reliable – the spread of false facts and fake news can be almost as deadly as the virus itself. But this does not mean that debate and criticism should be closed down and censored.

Tech companies have experienced considerable government pressure to monitor content, but as there is no form of redress when a post or tweet is removed, there are no protections to prevent the silencing of legitimate content. With a new virus, where scientific discovery is rapidly developing, open debate is more important than ever.

Attempts to silence criticism of governments’ responses to the virus has not been confined to social media. Both in the US and UK frontline workers have been warned with disciplinary action over the reporting of PPE concerns to the media, and British military personnel were banned from reporting the number of Covid infections within the military.

Emergency powers to help combat the virus are necessary. But they must be proportionate and temporary.

It is crucial that when we emerge from this crisis, we emerge into a society that is at least as open and democratic as it was before. As anti-war campaigners we need to be able to hold our government to account: to be free to protest and campaign both online and in the ‘real’ world.

We must demand that limitations on our freedoms, essential during the pandemic, are lifted as quickly as possible. That the rights to strike and protest, to free speech and to privacy are upheld.

01 May 2020 by Terina Hine

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