On Wednesday, after months of speculation and a flurry of off-the-record ministerial briefings and some pretty cringeworthy attempts at PR by GCHQ, the UK Government finally published its surveillance bill, which has been given the more innocuous title of the Investigatory Powers Bill.
Here’s a round-up (pun intended) of reaction to the Investigatory Powers Bill and how campaigners can build a coalition to oppose the bill, but only if they take on the Government directly on the claims it makes on security and crime prevention.
An extended itemised phone bill or another step towards mass surveillance?
Not surprisingly, the Government’s assessment of the Investigatory Powers Bil was markedly different to that of privacy activists and human rights campaigners.
While Theresa May wants us to “try to think of the new powers [the requirement for all companies to keep a record of every citizen’s internet history for a year] as just an extended itemised phone bill”, Amnesty International UK were warning that the bill “would effectively legalise mass surveillance, which by definition inherently fails the test of proportionality required by international human rights laws that the UK government must adhere to.”
Liberty also performed strongly, promoting its 8 point Safe and Sound plan for targeted surveillance, which they say would keep us safe while respecting our privacy.
Where was Labour?
More surprisingly (and particularly disappointingly for me as a Labour member), there hasn’t been much evidence of the much talked-about ‘a new kind of politics’ from the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn. I cringed as I read Andy Burnham’s response to May’s proposals, wishing Labour had at least chosen to express caution and reserve judgement:
“From what the Home Secretary has said today, it is clear to me that she and the Government have listened carefully to the concerns that were expressed about the draft Bill that was presented in the last Parliament … It would help the future conduct of this important public debate if the House sent out the unified message today that this is neither a snooper’s charter, nor a plan for mass surveillance.”
After Burnham’s initial comments on the bill in the House of Commons, Labour has seemingly made no effort to communicate to the public its position on the Government’s plans for new surveillance powers. In echoes of Nineteen Eight-Four, there is no comment whatsoever on Labour’s Twitter account of the Investigatory Powers Bill. Given the serious nature of the comments by Amnesty and Liberty, it’s disappointing Labour doesn’t feel the need to engage on the issue, at least not in public view.
Presenting a detailed operational case for targeted, not mass surveillance
As a member and activist with the Open Rights Group, you’d expect me to be suspicious of the Government’s plans for surveillance and to be instinctively sympathetic to the arguments Amnesty and Liberty have made about the risks the Investigatory Powers Bill poses to our individual rights and civil society. But I am not so naive as to believe that a majority of the public share my outlook. I voted for Ed Miliband to become Labour leader, after all.
From talking to friends, family and strangers about the work of the Open Rights Group, I know how easily arguments about the need for security, mixed in with frightening examples of horrible criminal activities, more often than not crush appeals to protect privacy and other human rights. If campaigners such as myself are to convince others to oppose the Government’s plans, we need to go beyond principled appeals to protect human rights.
In particular, campaigners need to show that a ‘collect it all’ approach, which puts all of us under surveillance, is not just legally and morally unacceptable, it does not actually keep us any safer.
So far the only person I’ve seen take on this argument is Peter Ludlow, former Professor of Philosophy at Northwestern University in the United States. Here’s a clip of him refuting the effectiveness of the NSA’s bulk data collection / mass surveillance approach. While Ludlow is talking about the United States, surely it is possible to do something similar here in the UK?
This clip comes from the excellent documentary, Killswitch: The Battle to Control the Internet, which I highly recommend you support.
While Ludlow is a passionate speaker, it’s a shame he doesn’t back up his point of view with hard evidence, at least not on the documentary itself.
Fortunately, campaigners do have evidence which they can draw on to help them make the case for targeted and not blanket surveillance. Back in 2013, for example, The Guardian reported on a Senate hearing in the United States which suggested the NSA had been systematically overstating the effectiveness of bulk collection of metadata.
More recently, in January 2014, the United States Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB – great acronym, by the way) ruled that that the bulk phone records collection had not stopped terrorist attacks and had “limited value” in combatting terrorism more broadly. The board also ruled the programme as illegal but, as an unnamed ministerial source said to The Sun last week, “It would be totally irresponsible of government to allow the legal system to dictate to us on matters as important as terrorism. (link goes to The Register, not The Sun)”.
While David Anderson, in his review of the UK’s existing investigatory powers, accepted the case for continued bulk data collection, he did at least say the Government would need to set out a ” detailed operational case” before any new surveillance powers could be introduced.
Given the lack of strong political opposition to the Government’s plans, coupled with the public’s valid concerns over security, it would be foolish to think at least a plausible will not be presented. If campaigners here in the UK are to successfully oppose the bill, they must take a similar approach and try, as far as possible, to present a detailed case for the kind of system Liberty presents in its Safe and Sound plan.