While we can breathe a sigh of relief that the Government has dropped the idea of a giant state-run database with records of all our communications, there is still much in the Home Office's latest proposals to alarm those concerned about the erosion of privacy in modern Britain.
The Government is proposing that internet service providers and mobile companies retain extensive records of our online contacts, emails and phone calls and make them available to the police and intelligence services so they can trace the activities of terrorists and other criminals.
There are already voluntary agreements under which communication service providers allow the security services access to such data. And it is well known that the intelligence services already monitor the telephone conversations of terror suspects and intercept other communications (although this information cannot presently be used as evidence in criminal prosecutions). The primary effect of these plans, therefore, would be to make it easier for the authorities to gather what they want.
Of course, there is a strong case for the state being given access to communications records if it can prevent acts of terrorism, or help to bring fanatics to trial. But if the police and intelligence services are to have blanket access to our phone and email records, what is to stop them abusing this access? The idea that we can trust in the inherent probity of the police will, sadly, no longer wash.
The Government points to the safeguards already in place under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, which specifies that requests for surveillance powers must come from the top level of a public body. But this is the same Act which permitted councils to spy on parents suspected of lying about their address.
The lesson from the abuse of the loosely drafted RIPA Act is that it is folly to expect restraint from those in public life. If you hand over powers without rigorous checks, those powers will be abused. And as long as we have a Government that behaves in such a cavalier manner towards the privacy of the individual, every innovation it brings forward to extend its own powers will inspire deep – and justified – mistrust.