Even before Edward Snowden’s confirmatory revelations, it was always suspected that national security services were able to monitor individuals’ telephone and internet connections, and even GPS satellite location records, via the “metadata” held by mobile telephone companies. Nevertheless, since the revelations, there have been growing public disquiet about whether doing this on such a mass scale was proportionate and even whether it was strictly legal. After the European Court of Justice ruled in April that such mass data harvesting and retention was illegal in the EU, the UK Coalition Government, in cooperation with opposition parties, has moved to “rush” through legislation effectively allowing such data harvesting by the security services to take place in the UK.
However, the move to enact such important legislation so close to the end of this session of parliament, has been branded as undemocratic by privacy and civil liberties campaigners, including many back bench MPs. They accuse the main political parties of making a “stitch up” with no proper democratic debate.
Critics of the new Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill (DRIP) law – an update of the original controversial RIPA law of 2000 – point out that not only does the law counter the European Court restrictions, it appears to expand what is defined as legitimate data to be retained and accessed, albeit with welcome new limitations on which government agencies can use it. For example, local councils will no longer have all their extensive investigative powers. However, the proposed new DRIP law does extend the scope of state surveillance to social online media systems and to documents held by cloud computing services.
While this new law has obvious implications for free speech and press freedom (including aerospace journalism), it could also affect businesses and individuals who might run up against government institutions. This has already happened under previous surveillance powers, used most disgracefully when Doreen Lawrence was put under surveillance by the Metropolitan Police after she criticised the police investigation into her son’s murder (the police later apologised). The police have also admitted similar spying campaigns on other victims’ families, presumably as they trawled to find information to try to discredit them after they similarly complained about the quality of the police.
Likewise, it is not beyond the bounds of imagination that future governments will be tempted to use such new powers to improve their negotiating position in government awarded contracts if they new what a bidding firm’s position was.
Other critics decry the timing of this new bill dubbed the “snoopers charter”. Specifically, they note that it has been introduced at a time of terrorist alerts and sex abuse scandals in the news, and suggest that the “politics of fear” is being used to get this controversial legislation through. This newsletter previously warned how such a tactic might be used. As such, It is especially disappointing to note that Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron, has subsequently cited the emotive threats to the public of terrorists, criminals, and paedophiles in his attempt to secure public support for such a law.
In fact, there are good arguments to allow limited surveillance powers to be retained: let’s face it, the terrorists are still out there. However, those that use the “politics of fear” on the public in such a disingenuous and disreputable manner to justify a rush to what remains draconian and expansionary legislation, deserve to fail. Until there is a proper democratic debate with enough parliamentary time given to allow it, such rushed legislation should be opposed. While this sort of thing happens in other pseudo-democratic countries, we will have no “stitch ups” in the “Mother of all Parliaments” thank you very much.
Update on 16 July 2014: Since writing this piece the new controversial Data RIPA law has passed its first reading in the House of Commons. This was hardly picked up by news organisations more concerned with headlines itemising David Cameron’s cabinet reshuffle which happened at more or less the same time. Again, the coincidence of this cabinet reshuffle timing is suspect.
Further update on 18 July 2014: The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has warned that too many nations are simply “rubber stamping” new surveillance powers. See BBC report.
Update October 2014: The UK Government has admitted that the police have already been tracking the telephone and e-mail connections of journalists under the original RIPA legislation passed in 2000. Without RIPA, they would have needed a warrant authorisation from a judge. However, the government and police forces have refused to say how many journalists have been affected, or how many of these occurrences involved the investigation of terrorism – the RIPA investigatory powers originally intended purpose. There has been more than a hint of hypocrisy from some complaining tabloid journalists given their newspapers’ own reprehensible record of unauthorised phone surveillance and spying. Nevertheless, there has rightly been a public outcry over fears that the press will no longer be free to pursue government and police wrong doing. The UK Home Secretary, Theresa May, tried to calm these fears by promising to tighten RIPA legislation to prevent such surveillance of journalists and their sources, with the exception that it could still be used to investigate or prevent a “serious crime”, presumably meaning murder, terrorism etc.