A new Snoopers’ charter, drip by drip?

Snoopy with charterWhen the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act was passed with undue haste this summer, the one ‘saving grace’ promised to us by the Liberal Democrats, hitherto guardians of our civil liberties and killers of the Snoopers’ Charter, was the ‘sunset clause’ of December 2016, and the promise of careful and considered review of powers before then.

That careful and considered review – or rather several careful and considered reviews – began. Specifically, the Parliament Intelligence and Security Committee continued the review that it had begun before the hasty passing of DRIP, while the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation began his own consultation. Both these reviews do seem to have been both careful and considered – I made submissions to both of them, and was invited to a highly illuminating ’round table’ session by the ISC, as well as receiving a fast and clear response by the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation that showed he had read and understood what I said. In both cases, the feeling I was left with was one of cautious optimism. Those of us advocating a more privacy-friendly, less invasive approach were being listened to, or so it seemed….

…but at the same time, something very different seems to have been happening. There have been a series of speeches by important people that seem to be working directly against that careful, considered approach. The incoming head of GCHQ made a speech that was remarkably aggressive – effectively calling Google and Facebook tools for terrorists. The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police followed that with what amounted to an anti-privacy tirade, in particular condemning the use of encryption, and saying that the net had become a ‘safe-haven for terrorists and paedophiles’. Both seemed to be trying to suggest that the social media was an untamed wilderness that needed to be reined in – and at the same time seemed to want to inspire fear of the ‘deep, dark web’. The Culture Secretary, Sajid Javid, followed that with a speech suggesting that Article 8 – the right to a private life – had gone too far, and again invoking the threat of terrorists and paedophiles.

…and then, yesterday, Theresa May announced more powers for the police – technical powers, crucial, she said, for the fight against terror. Technical, and yet not discussed with the Internet Service Providers Association, or, seemingly, with those few MPs (such as Julian Huppert) who actually understand the internet, at least to some degree.

…and all this, at the same time as the reviews are taking place. It has the feeling of a drip, drip, dripping, trying to build up a stronger ‘anti internet freedom’ atmosphere. ‘The internet is something to be scared of, full of paedophiles, terrorists and extremists’ so needs to be reined in. Theresa May openly admits she wants to bring back the Snoopers’ Charter – despite its defeat the last time around – so she’s trying to lay the foundations for its return. Working on our resistance. Wearing us down. Trying, it seems, to make sure that the careful, considered review is anything but careful and considered – because the invocation of terrorists and paedophiles makes it impossible to be careful and considered. If you aren’t in favour of these obviously sensible measures, you’re on the side of the extremists, of the terrorists, of the paedophiles. Today, whilst debating the subject on Twitter, I was effectively told that I would have blood on my hands if I opposed the extension of powers.

We should do our very best to resist this. The review must be careful and considered – because there are significant and important issues at stake. Privacy matters – as do all the rights and needs that it supports, from freedom of expression to freedom of assembly and association. Civil liberties like these need privacy – because without that privacy there is a distinct and direct chill. Those of us who suggest that surveillance has gone too far can point to a number of recent revelations – that communications between journalists and their sources, between lawyers and their clients, between prisoners and their MPs, have all been compromised. This matters – and needs to be taken seriously.

On the other hand security also matters – and none of those who I know as privacy advocates deny this, despite what some of our opponents might suggest. We know that it matters – and want to have a sensible, rational, level-headed review of the whole system. We don’t expect our privacy needs to override security – but we do expect that some kind of a balance can be found. That needs an atmosphere without the kind of hyperbole that has been produced in the last few weeks. Can we find that? It does not seem very hopeful at the moment, particularly with a general election looming at the two major parties seemingly competing to see who can be ‘tougher’. I hope we can be equally tough – but tough in terms of fighting for our rights. If we’re not, then we’ll have a new Snoopers’ Charter before we’re even aware what is happening.


11 thoughts on “A new Snoopers’ charter, drip by drip?

  1. Unsurprisingly, Theresa May pitches for the hard right vote amongst her party just in case she finds herself being ‘strong armed’ into running for leader.

    Has Sajid Javid got leadership ambitions of his own? His first thoughts on a Bill of Rights are to set aside the findings of Leveson and guarantee the right of of the media, in particular the press, to carry on as before. No suggestion of enshrining the concept of the public interest in the bill so that every time it is invoked one may take legal action to challenge that contention.

    Meanwhile, The Sun has recently had recourse to the ECHR which usually it regards as well beyond the pale. Other media people, past and present, may find an urgent need to become very familiar with the convention as the Child Sex Abuse inquiry closes in on what they know/knew at the time and asks whether people in the media were just unwilling and/or passive lookers on. Was the recent story about the use of two D Notices in regards to CSA an attempt to distance the media from becoming central to the inquiry?

    Who will guard the snoopers, self appointed or otherwise?

      1. No mention, incidentally, of us having a real say in the contents of the bill. Most of the time, I expect MPs to do the heavy lifting with regards to drafting and passing legislation, but this is what I deem to be an exception.

        The ECHR was drafted outside of a single national political arena as was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If we must have a national Bill of Rights then I want, nay, I demand a say in its drafting:

        “For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it’s clear that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under…”

        Thomas Rainsborough, Putney Debates, 1647.

        Of course, Cameron intends to celebrate the signing of the (first of the) Magna Carta(s) in the run up to the General Election.

  2. I am afraid to say that you are right to remark that there are people across the political spectrum who have an unhealthy obsession with snooping on others.

    What concerns me about the remainder is that, understandably, they take the advice of those we employ to advise us on matters of security. It concerns me, because for decades now we have all to some extent taken their word that the threats they describe are both real and that their responses to them are proportionate.

    The Cold War ended, but (conveniently?) other threats to our way of life arose needing at least a maintenance of our Cold War level of spending on the security services. One of the reasons for remaining at such a high alert level was an expected rise in industrial espionage. I understand companies create mini highly protected webs on the Internet to securely exchange information, particularly about product development. Am I being overly cynical to think the new powers being sought will allow the security services to peep into such mini webs?

    Intriguingly, unless I have missed it, there has been no reference to protecting against cyber attacks on companies, government bodies and so on. One, about 12 years or so ago brought down DWP’s e-mail for about a week. The attack was traced back to two computers in China. Incidentally, DWP’s firewalls were at that time being maintained, if memory serves, by Capita.

    I am reminded of omething one of the Lever brothers once said about their company’s spending on marketing. He said that he had been told that only 50% of their spending was effective, but no one could tell him which 50% it was. And to whom would he be asking that question? The people he was paying to undertake the marketing for his company.

    I suspect that understandably risk averse legislators (without a desire to trample on anyone’s fundamental rights) are unwilling to guess which 50% is worth the money. If they get it wrong they really will have blood on their hands and advisers saying I told you so (and these days that means in public and on the record).

    What we need are a few Attlees in our political and public life. (Major) Attlee when presented with a set of estimates of the size of the Red Army during his time as Prime Minister told his advisers to go away and review them. He had, he told them, dealt with people like them during World War Two and they were not going to bounce him into doing anything, based on what he regarded as doubtful figures.

    Politicians need the confidence to push back Attlee style and arguably we need to do our bit to give them the confidence to do so. Dare I suggest that we may need to say, you push back some and we will trust you a bit more and James Bond a bit less?

  3. We don’t expect our privacy needs to override security – but we do expect that some kind of a balance can be found.

    Have you read Waldron’s paper on the image of balance in the security debate? I’ve avoided the word ‘balance’ ever since!

  4. It’s coming from all directions at the moment. This morning I saw a daft segment on the BBC News about how the Advertising Standards Authority want to clamp down on ‘confusing’ product placement by vloggers. They then showed a frenzied teenager waggling packets of Oreo cookies at the camera. I don’t honestly think this is going to confuse anyone and I am much more worried about things like LIBOR rigging which are going. To cost me money and which our ‘regulators’ will do al out nothing about.
    The British state has decided that a free internet is just not British – and they are probably right. I heard a Radio programme earlier this year about the debates which were had about the UKIP getting Breakfast telly. Basically a group of worthies had to debate whether Breakfast telly would improve us as a nation or erode the British way of life. Eventually they decided to give their permission for tv broadcasting to come on at Breakfast time but only provided it was ‘informative’. A short while after, a strike revealed the shocking truth that more people would tune in if they showed Roadrunner cartoons and reruns of Batman.
    The people who run this country and the entrepreneurial regulators want to to colonise the Internet and run it like it was the British high street, with ratings, licensing, regulation and censorship every where you look. Quite frankly the left are just as bad as the right. So called fourth wave feminists think the way to improve the status of women is to ban front covers of newspapers from display in case risqué or sensationalist headlines might damage the emotional development of children.
    We have always had a regulated nanny state in the UK. The trouble is that they are now starting to realise that there is a place where freedom exists – the Internet- and they want it run to their specifications and to the bene fit of the friends inn big media.

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