How illiberal will the Government’s desired Communications Data Bill be?
The sight of a Muswell Hill Islamic Centre in flames this week was the shocking, if not entirely surprising, consequence of the vicious killing of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich. It followed attacks on ten mosques and the defacing of the Bomber Command Memorial in London’s Green Park.
These acts of vengeance, though unacceptable, are usually a short-term phenomenon. The vast majority of people still appreciate that a few nutters who kill in the name of a religion do not represent all followers of that religion.
There is, however, a potentially far more damaging and long-lasting consequence of Lee Rigby’s death – a new and invasive internet monitoring law. Apparently blocked by Nick Clegg and left out of the Queen’s Speech, supporters of the Communications Data Bill – dubbed the Snooper’s Charter by its opponents – have pointed to the young private’s killing as evidence that the Government needs extra powers to stop future terrorist attacks.
If passed, the Communications Data Bill would allow the police and security services to monitor the communications of everyone in Britain. Every email to your colleagues. Every text to your friends. Every phone call to your wife. All these could be tracked in real time, and all without a warrant.
How would the government do it? By forcing phone companies and internet service providers to store all this information about you and then hand it over on request. This would be a massive, unnecessary extension of the State’s power.
Now, I have a lot of sympathy with the Home Secretary. She is charged with keeping our streets safe from murderers, rapists and terrorists, and when the intelligence agencies tell you that they need new powers to achieve that, it is a brave person who turns them down.
But turn them down we must.
Although the Home Secretary says the Snooper’s Charter is designed to help the police and security services keep up with modern technology, it actually goes much further. The law would add significantly to the powers created under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, or RIPA. That legislation allowed police to track our movements using mobile phone data, a power used half a million times a year – over a thousand times a day.
This chronic overuse of RIPA has seen people spied on illegally, and a whole catalogue of errors made. Two people were wrongly arrested as a result of typos on intercept information. A power designed to help public bodies identify terrorists has been used to investigate littering, the unauthorised sale of pizzas, and the alleged misuse of disabled parking badges.
These are not the only examples of government agencies failing to use sensitive information effectively. Information about every single one of the 7/7 suicide bombers was held on databases, yet still they slipped through the net. The reason? The sheer volume of data the intelligence agencies had to process meant vital clues were missed. These agencies are already looking for needles in haystacks, so how is giving them access to the personal data of 62 million mostly innocent people going to help their cause?
These examples should serve as a warning. If the police and government agencies are unable to manage the powers they already have, how on earth can we expect them to use new powers appropriately, legally and effectively?
Whenever a government announces plans for a draconian law, the justification is always the same – stopping terrorists. But we already have laws which let the secret services monitor the communications of suspected terrorists. When the London and Glasgow bombings happened, the intelligence agencies used phone records to identify the culprits within hours. No new law was required, just permission from a judge – something that can be secured in the middle of the night if necessary.
To make matters worse, whilst the Snooper’s Charter will do little or nothing to help fight terrorism, it will cost us our privacy.
The Home Secretary insists that the Government is not interested in the content of our emails, texts and phone calls. In reality, though, it could find out an awful lot about us by knowing who we contact, when, where, how often and for how long. What is more, the Government wants to access weblogs – the list of every website we visit. From this the police or intelligence agencies could deduce a huge amount, from your income and sexual orientation to whether you are pregnant or planning to move house.
When Tony Blair wanted a law to let bureaucrats to monitor our emails, the Conservative and Lib Dem leaderships killed it off. So why on earth would we seek to resurrect the Snooper’s Charter now? Of course the Government must have the powers they need to fight terrorism, but it already has these under the current system – one which forces police and intelligence agencies target real criminals rather than treat everyone in Britain as a suspect.