Yesterday I took part in the ’round table sessions’ of the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament’s ‘Privacy and Security Inquiry’. It was an interesting event – and an enjoyable one, though I hope that doesn’t mean that I’ve already begun the process of being ‘captured’ by the intelligence community. The round table sessions are part of the bigger inquiry – accompanied by public evidence sessions which are continuing through the week.
The whole thing was very informal – I found myself sitting next to Sir Malcolm Rifkind and opposite Lord Lothian around a small, round table, one of three such tables in the room. Yes, the round table sessions really involved round tables. Essentially, we had an hour to chat about whatever issues we felt mattered to the inquiry – we had been invited on the basis of the written evidence we had submitted to the inquiry, back in February this year (mine can be found here). Around the table were an academic computer scientist, what I would call a ‘real’ programmer, a human rights activist, myself, a former lawyer for MI5 and MI6, and the two members of the committee, Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Lord Lothian.
There were some very positive things about the discussion – both Rifkind and Lothian appeared to agree, after some resistance, on the first major point that we tried to argue (primarily myself and Izza Leghtas from Human Rights Watch): that the privacy invasion, and hence the first set of proper controls, need to be at the gathering stage, not the accessing stage for data. That, in practice, less data should be gathered and held, and for shorter periods. Moreover, that there should be judicial involvement at the gathering stage – indeed, David Bickford, former Legal Director for MI5 and MI6, thought judges should be involved far more in the whole process, from beginning to end, following the French model.
As part of that discussion, they really did appear to take on board that there are serious risks involved in just gathering and holding data – and seemed to be listening as we listed them!
Other points of agreement were that RIPA is, basically, an awful mess. Rifkind readily admitted that he really didn’t understand it. What that says for his (and the committee’s) ability to oversee the intelligence services is another matter. The feeling from all concerned was that whatever else happens, the law needs review and it needs to be clearer what it actually does – whether directly in the law or in accompanying guidance. It would be nice to see – but I am not holding my breath.
Three particularly interesting things that came out of our brief discussion – and it was brief, because the hour we had went very fast. The first was that Sir Malcolm Rifkind made a very clear differentiation between the intelligence services and the other groups who can use RIPA. He made the argument that the intelligence services really can’t do you any harm unless you’re one of the ‘bad guys’ – and though this was perilously close to saying ‘if you’ve got nothing to hide’ he did acknowledge that it was not an argument that worked in relation to the police, to local authorities or to the other various bodies that utilise surveillance or gathered data. He seemed to suggest that all of those bodies – including the police – need much tighter controls. In the light of the current issues regarding police access to journalists’ communications data, this makes sense, but again it will be interesting to see whether it really amounts to anything.
The second was that David Bickford made the specific comment that if corporations do all the data gathering, analysis and so forth, then surely the intelligence services should be able to do the same. Why should we place more restrictions on the intelligence services than we do on Google and Facebook? When I suggested that perhaps this means that we should put more restrictions on Google and Facebook rather than less on the intelligence services, he laughed a bit, but did seem to get the point.
The third was that both Lord Lothian and Sir Malcolm Rifkind noted that the Human Rights Act provided protection – and when I teased him about the planned impending doom of the Human Rights Act, Rifkind almost winced, and said that there’s always the ECHR. I got the distinct feeling that Rifkind is not enamoured of Grayling’s plan for human rights, though he was far too diplomatic to say so.
Much more was said, and overall it was a good and fairly robust discussion – we all seemed to be able to say what we wanted, and the two committee members seemed genuinely to be listening. They are, however, politicians – and they were also very aware of the limitations of their own powers, and how hard it is to change things in this field with any speed. They were keenest of all on increasing transparency, and moving to a position where the default position is that information is disclosed, and is made public, rather than the opposite. I hope this happens….
….but I remain cynical about it all. The question of whether what the committee does actually has any impact on what the security and intelligence services do remains unanswered. Is this all just a PR exercise, or is there some more profound change going on? It will take a lot more than a few round table sessions, even with Knights like Sir Malcolm Rifkind, to convince me. However, I found myself just a smidgen less cynical than I was before the session started. Perhaps I’ve been captured after all.