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Surveillance vs snooping

Mixed results in the conflict between freedom and security

For a nation still groggy from the barrage of revelations concerning government snooping, yesterday’s announcement of a new surveillance law will foster the suspicion that, once again, the rights of civilians to communicate in private have been elbowed aside in favour of a voracious security state. There is indeed cause for mistrust – but it concerns the manner of the law’s introduction, and less so the measures it contains.

A who’s who of public enemies – from Isis to child abusers – was cited by David Cameron to justify bringing in “emergency” legislation that will shore up the power of government bodies to gather data on British citizens. Besides the speed of its introduction, the hugger-mugger style in which this law has come to pass – agreed upon by party leaders behind closed doors – adds to the impression that the Government is seizing for itself unwarranted powers.

In reality, the “emergency” here is more banal, and the law may in fact, in a few years, benefit the civil libertarian cause. The precise cause for the unseemly hurry is a lawsuit launched by the Open Rights group (hardly a terrorist organisation), which, temporarily dormant, has been made active following an April ruling from the European Court of Justice. That ruling would have lifted the requirement that internet and phone companies keep a wide range of billing data on their clients for a period of 12 months.

Keeping this data available to the authorities is preferable to suddenly “going dark”, and requires no immediate development on the security status quo. Moreover, the Liberal Democrats and Labour have won important concessions: an independent privacy and civil liberties board is to be created, and there will be a review of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) – which sets the limit on digital surveillance. The “emergency” legislation will itself expire in 2016, so that new laws can be created in light of that review.

Both the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary Theresa May are known to support an increase in state surveillance, along the lines of the so-called snoopers’ charter, which Nick Clegg fought off last year. He may soon be required to take up the battle again. This far-reaching extension of government surveillance, were it enacted, would be illiberal and possibly ineffective. What we need is smarter surveillance, not ever more of it.