Freedom and security

22nd February 2016

News, Alumni news

'Freedom and Security in the 21st Century' was the subject of a lively discussion at this year’s Circles’ discussion.

  • Speakers (left to right) Chris Summerfield, Mary Ann Sieghart, Ken Macdonald QC and Tom Simpson.

Held at The Honourable Society of Gray's Inn, the 120 strong audience was made up of donors to Wadham who are members of the Dorothy, Nicholas and Wilkins Circles.

Speaking at the debate were Warden, Ken Macdonald QC and Wadham Fellows Dr Tom Simpson, Lecturer in Philosophy and Public Policy at Blavatnik School of Government, and Dr Chris Summerfield, Tutorial Fellow in Psychology and principal investigator at the Summerfield Laboratory, chaired by alumna, journalist and broadcaster Mary Ann Sieghart, (PPE, 1979).

Chris Summerfield concentrated his presentation on the recent advances in information technology which have had such an impact on our freedom and security. Citing machines capable of thinking for themselves he spoke of IBMs Deep Blue computer, an early example of a machine which managed to beat the then World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov in 1997. Its win was due to knowledge which had been given to Deep Blue by researchers who told it what the legal moves were. However, the computational requirements to solve modern computer games using such techniques are no longer enough. Chris hypothesised that to build artificial intelligence we need to learn from biological intelligence, gradually incrementing the level of connectivity between different units as the network receives new information – thus mirroring the neurons in the brain. Working with computer games Chris has discovered that the more networks are involved, the more skilled the artificial intelligence becomes.

The collection of big data and its use to create real world applications was the subject of Tom Simpson’s presentation. “Most of the people working in national security are good hearted people trying to do a demanding job in difficult circumstances,” he said. However, Tom questioned whether the collection of bulk data is liberty enhancing or liberty diminishing.  "The price of living in a free society is that we accept some risk of lost life, in order to forego some security measures which would restrict our daily freedoms unacceptably. One such freedom is the absence of monitoring. There is a challenge in implementing this for people generally, and the media specifically: when a terrorist attack happens, it must be recognised that this may not be because of error by the security services, but rather be the cost of maintaining an open way of life," he said.

Ken Macdonald QC questioned how artificial intelligence and the gathering of bulk data fits into the rule of law and how the state will control this sort of conduct. He looked at how the British rule of law coped with security issues surrounding the Binyam Mohamed case, examining if and when a court case should go into closed session in the interests of national security. He also discussed the revelation by Edward Snowden of Operation Tempora, a formerly secret computer system used by GCHQ to enable them to carry out mass surveillance programmes by examining data passing through transatlantic cables. While MPs were debating the use of such mass surveillance techniques, they were unaware of the fact that they were already being routinely used. Although he felt there were many reasons why bulk data collection is necessary he stressed that it was important that its collection should be within the rule of law in order to gain public confidence. “It has to exist in the context of proper warranty, proper process and respect for the law,” he said.

Animated discussion followed the presentations, then alumni enjoyed drinks and canapés in the atmospheric surroundings of Gray’s Inn.