Joe Armitage is a student and Parliamentary Assistant.
Remember the Communications Data Bill? For me, the Liberal Democrats’ vetoing of it helped justify their inclusion in the previous government. It’s telling that the Home Secretary hasn’t reintroduced this legislation en bloc in this Parliament, despite now having a Conservative majority. The more politicians are exposed to this type of legislation, the more their support for it wanes.
What the Home Secretary has introduced is the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill. This is supposedly less severe than its forerunner, whilst still containing sufficient safeguards, yet it is troubling in other ways. For one, it is being rushed through Parliament. For another, its scope could be larger – and more terrible – than we have been led to believe.
It is quite clear that this Bill was published with scant regard for legibility. We’re all prone to errors, but I’d expect the Government not to forget words in such a vital piece of legislation. For example, on page 33 it says:
“Public authorities provided with the ability to acquire CD and statutory purposes will listed in the bill.”
The word “be” is omitted. Pedantic, yes, but also a perfect illustration of the lack of thought that has gone into the Bill. And that’s before dealing with its substance and ramifications.
Those appraising this bill only seem to address one portion of it, namely the part addressing interception warrants. At present, the Home Secretary personally authorises around two thousand interception warrants each year. These interceptions reveal the content of communications, such as emails and text messages. This is vital to our security and it should not be outlawed. In fact, given the limited number of them and the requirement for a senior minister to sanction each one, I believe little in this area needs amending.
Despite this, opponents of the bill focus on this area, and argue for more judicial oversight. Whilst the Government claims this bill introduces it, they’re misleading you. The judiciary will merely review the actions of ministers to ensure that they were done as prescribed by law. They won’t be reviewing the individual merits and proportionality of each warrant; just whether all the necessary boxes were ticked prior to the minister’s sign-off.
This has deflected attention away from the other portion of the Bill, concerning the accessibility of “entity data” and “all data” to public authorities. This Bill will allow inspectors – a relatively junior police officer – to view every website you visit. It will grant Department for Transport “enforcement officers”, Gambling Commission “senior managers” and “grade 6” Food Standards Agency employees this power too. The only requirement is that each authority submits an annual report to the Home Secretary.
The nothing-to-hide brigade tell us not to worry. If you haven’t been accessing child pornography and plotting the overthrow of the state, relax.
I don’t agree. I think authority is not to be trusted, and with due cause. Since 2009, around 300 public bodies have been banned from accessing the DVLA’s database because their employees were inappropriately using it to match number plates to addresses. Given this, allowing thousands of people to see what websites any citizen in the UK has visited isn’t sensible. I worry that, with scant safeguards in this area, Inspector Smith of Merseyside Police will be able to see whether Mr Smith visits the Ashley Madison website.
The Government needs to act with proportionality, and not succumb to the demands of enforcement agencies. We’re told that up to five terrorist plots were thwarted last year, a surprisingly low number. I remain unconvinced about how necessary these powers are. I want the Government to be able to pursue terrorists and paedophiles, the justification for this legislation. However, I don’t think that band one inspectors of the Health and Safety Executive need to view our browsing history.
What’s more, if this legislation is passed, I very much doubt a terrorist will be Googling how to make a bomb, or paedophiles will be accessing child pornography, without proxies.