As the old saying goes, in heaven the food is Italian, the beer is German and the police are British. The rule of law in this country is upheld on the principle that the police are not our masters but our servants. We don’t have military police and you rarely see armed officers on our streets. Maybe crime would be lower if we had tougher law enforcement, but that’s besides the point - it’s just not how we do things here.
Yet Theresa May, the Home Secretary, wants to give police powers that even that most autocratic and unfree countries do not have. She is turning local bobbies into snoopers, inspectors into hackers, and in doing so she is eroding what little privacy we have from the prying eyes of an increasingly powerful government.
The Investigatory Powers Bill, unveiled yesterday, is an affront to Parliament. After three inquiries, in which MPs said the measures went too far and the powers it contained were sprawling, May told her officials to go even further. Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee - the only security-checked committee with access to the most sensitive workings of our intelligence agencies - told May to place privacy at the heart of the Bill. Her Home Office officials simply added the word "privacy" to a chapter heading. To treat Parliament with such contempt is beneath one of the great offices of state.
The powers in the Bill are unnecessary. It will give the police the power to read your web histories, even if you are entirely innocent of any crime. It will let the police hack your phone. In fact, the hacking provisions are so broad that it will give the intelligence agencies and the police the power to force your ISP to hack your personal devices, from the camera and microphone on your smartphone or smart TV, to your laptop or desktop. It isn't even clear whether the judicial warrants allowing such hacking will be signed off for individuals, or whether judges will be asked to sign off on broader warrants enabling the hacking of, say, a group of people the state doesn’t like. Parliament has said the lack of detail around these provisions is of deep concern.
Three years after Edward Snowden bravely revealed illegal spying by GCHQ, the Bill tries to prevent anyone from blowing the whistle again. It will be illegal to tell anyone you have been served with a surveillance warrant, and if you are a journalist it will be illegal for someone to leak to you that they’ve been served with a such a warrant. There is no public interest defence for whistleblowers.
There are even worse measures: the legislation will enable the ‘request filter’, a highly advanced search function that will allow the police to ascertain every individual who has attended a protest or anyone who visits the website of any particular political group. Combined with further extensions of data retention, with the storage of every citizen’s web browsing history for 12 months, it creates the enormous potential for unjustifiable snooping in the private lives of entire innocent citizens.
It’s hard to understand the magnitude of what this means for your private life.
Imagine if after visiting a local library and a pub, the police asked you to record every person you spoke to, the names of the books you read, anyone you sat near, and the route you took there and back from your home. All of this will be recorded, by default, by the British state if the bill passes.
No other democracy does this; not Germany, not Italy, not the USA. Britain will have built surveillance capabilities that no other nations, except countries such as China and Russia, have.
These bulk powers divide Parliament. The government is asking Labour, the official opposition, to unite with it to push these powers through, and yet have given the opposition no serious evidence for why they need such wide-ranging powers. Bulk collection of our data is so controversial that two senior MPs, David Davis and Labour deputy leader Tom Watson, took the government to court to fight for our rights, to prove that collecting every citizen’s data is illegal.
Labour is making the right noises. But neither Kier Starmer MP, the former Director of Public Prosecutions, nor Shadow Home Secretary Andy Burnham have ruled out voting for mass surveillance powers. It would be highly damaging to the party if Labour voted with Conservative Ministers (many Conservative backbenchers aren’t convinced) to usher in the most sweeping surveillance laws seen in any democracy in the Western world.
The Don’t Spy On Us coalition of legal experts, law enforcement and the intelligence agencies all agree on one thing: we do need new legislation. The main piece of legislation overseeing surveillance is 16 years old and pre-dates Facebook, let alone newer tools such as Whatsapp or Telegram.
Yet it mustn’t be rushed. Leading experts, including a cross-party group of parliamentarians, former senior police officers and intelligence experts, have written an open letter to May urging her not to rush this legislation through Parliament. The Home Secretary should reconsider: it isn’t too late to get the timetable for this important legislation right and give Parliament the time to amend the Bill.
We need to maintain trust in the police and intelligence agencies in an uncertain world. Giving them powers only a few autocratic states have will do nothing to keep us safe.
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