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Why the ‘snooping’ Communications Data Bill will not pass through Parliament

5 October 2012

5 October 2012

I believe in evidence-based policy, and if the Home Office or anyone else claims that they need new powers over the people of this country, the onus is on them to demonstrate what they need and why. They should never assume that they will always get what they want, simply because they ask for it. Politicians owe it to the people to question the needs, not just roll over and concede our hard-earned freedoms on request.

Obviously there is always a balance to be struck when deciding how many powers to give the state. We benefit from having an effective police force – but give the police too many powers, and we put too many restrictions on people’s freedoms. Orwell’s 1984 is the terrible consequence.

The use of communications data – the who, how, when and where of communications, but not the content – is definitely useful for the police, security services, and many others. There is no doubt that if hunting for a missing child, it is useful to know from where he or she made a phone call from.

But we cannot simply allow the police to have a full record of all information, backdated for a year, just because it may be useful. In exactly the same way, none of us would tolerate having a CCTV camera in every room, just in case it might become useful someday to look at the last year’s records.

So there is a need to strike a balance. A need for the police to demonstrate that they actually need any new powers, and that the benefits outweigh the harms – as well as the financial costs.

The current position is that records are kept of every call you make, text you send, website you visit and more, for 12 months. This can then be made available not just to the police, but to a wide range of public bodies, from local councils to the food standard agency. And they do ask – some 500,000 requests are made each year. The oversight is not as strong as it should be – in the Police, an inspector can sign off the requests, and in other bodies it can be even easier.

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But the Home Office has pushed for many years to have even more access to communications data. For example, because some websites – such as Google and Facebook – are hosted overseas, they are not bound by the existing UK law.

The Home Office tried this under Labour, and were rebuffed. Now they are trying it again under the Coalition, and look set to be rebuffed too. But years of effort have gone into drawing up proposals for a massive increase in surveillance and data gathering.

Now, in all those years of work you might think that the Home Office had found out what use it makes currently of communications data. Not just anecdotes, but real figures – a breakdown of the 500,000 requests each year, what they were used for, how many people were affected and so forth. No such luck. The Home Secretary referred to ‘Paedophiles and Terrorists’ – the standard bugbears that we are all, of course, against – but the Home Office simply had no figures available to justify this. The best they had was a two-week snapshot, which omitted terrorism and had no listing for paedophiles. Having little information on how the existing powers are used gives no comfort that the future powers would be used appropriately.

Originally, the Home Office plan was to slip these new proposals in with the Crime and Courts Bill, currently going through Parliament. If this had been the case, there would have been minimal scrutiny of what was being proposed – only a few of us would have looked enough at the details to care – and coupling it with important things like the National Crime Agency would have made it hard to oppose.

Nick Clegg stepped in, however, and insisted that this be a Draft Bill, subject to detailed parliamentary analysis before being formally proposed to Parliament. I have to confess, I hadn’t at the time realised just how important a step this was. Rather than the Bill passing quickly through, a committee has been set up, currently meeting three times a week, to hear from experts and members of the public, going through all the proposals, and weighing them up carefully. We and the public are now far better informed about what currently happens under RIPA, what the Home Office claims it wants to do, and what the Draft Bill actually says.

There are many problems with the Bill as it stands, with more and more becoming apparent every day.

Just to give a flavour, it starts with a power to allow the Home Secretary ‘by order’ to collect any communications data she likes, in whatever way she likes. The Home Office claims it would only use a limited set of these powers – but we should never give carte blanche powers like that to the Home Secretary, whoever he or she may be.

And then there’s the cost. The government estimates that this will cost 1.8 billion pounds, over the next 10 years; an absolutely huge figure, with so little justification. And even the Police don’t seem to be persuaded this is the right way to spend money. When I asked the Met Commissioner recently how he would spend £1.8 billion over 10 years, he listed neighbourhood policing, training, and better use of ANPR and fingerprinting; communications data didn’t merit a mention.

Nick Clegg has announced recently that he plans to listen very carefully to the report of the committee, and in particular to my advice as to what to do. We’re still going through that process, and I will wait to see the rest of the evidence before deciding finally. We will report in November.

But from what I have seen so far, this is a seriously botched Bill, unfit in principle and in detail. It seems to have been thrown together without evidence to support the need for such wide-ranging powers. This is a Bill that should not and will not get support in Parliament.


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Show comments
  • http://twitter.com/Loingirder Mike Palmer

    Don’t want to be spied on? Simple. Don’t use the internet, a mobile or a landline. Don’t buy anything with a debit or credit card. Don’t drive anywhere or go into town.

  • AuldCurmudgeon

    Do you know what an Onion Ring server is? Ever handled strong cryptography, or used an anonymizer? If this Bill passes into law you will, and much, much more, and so will everybody you know, as the entire population of the UK online decamps into the dark web.

    Remeber the Beano? How the robber always wore an opera mask, a stripy shirt and a sack marked ‘swag’? If only life were so simple. On the Internet it almost is, as so few people use the dark tools and the hard methodologies, they stand out. They’re easy to spot. Easy to hunt down. When everybody and their dog is doing it, we will all be so much worse off.

    If you thought Mandleson was stupid, let’s put a Tory on the job.

    • ButcombeMan

      Silly rubbish.AC.

      Most people will not bother in fact the data retention policy if enacted, wil only further encourage the criminal or those with something to hide to migrate to the dark web.

      Those with nothing to hide wiill not care a jot. Why should they?

      If Clegg listens to a clown like Huppert, we truly are doomed. I have heard Huppert speak. A LibDem mind, less in tune with real evidence, I find difficult to imagine.

      Huppert seems to be interested only in evidence which reinforces his prejudices.

      • Jelly Jim

        “Those with nothing to hide wiill not care a jot. Why should they?”

        Probably because they won’t want to leave themselves open to blackmail and fraud at the hands of an army of public sector workers who will have relatively easy access to such data.

        It’s not like it hasn’t been done before.

      • Cyberleagle

        The innocent have most to fear from being treated like suspects.

  • Cogito Ergosum

    Surely this is just a belated attempt by the Government to catch up with what Google and Facebook already do. So if we trust Google, perhaps we can trust the Government.

    • Jelly Jim

      It’s slightly more comprehensive than just “what Google and Facebook already do”. The difference is, decisions to trust Google, Facebook, whoever are conscious choices by consumers. Will the Gov let us opt out of being automatically tracked, profiled and treated as suspects? I doubt it.

      Besides, I do trust some online businesses with the information I choose to give them. I do not trust the Gov, as it has proved itself incapable of being trustworthy or competent time and again.

      • ButcombeMan

        “Conscious decisions by users”. No most people have no real idea of the power of Google and Facebook grew so big before most users understood. Most use web browsers that allow cookies-they do it without thought . I will wager Julian Huppert does it.

        • Jelly Jim

          That’s a different issue. A decision to use Google, Facebook or whatever else is out there is a conscious decision to trust them. If users didn’t trust them, why would they use them?

          I don’t trust the state, but I would have no choice in its interactions with me if it were allowed to redefine the boundaries of what I consider to be entirely my business and none of its whatsoever.

          If I don’t trust Google/ Facebook/ whatever, I am entirely free to circumvent them. In fact, to a much greater extent than I can circumvent Experian, which has a much greater effect on people’s lives. Why aren’t people getting bent out of shape about that business?

          Last time I checked, the intent of those online applications wasn’t to use cookies and because they suspect all of their users are potential criminals.

          There’s quite some distance between cookies set by websites and the ability to hoard, mine, profile and cross-reference really personal data.

  • In2minds

    Excellent
    article from Huppert, a Liberal Democrat who holds liberal views and
    regards liberal values as important, not all do. But generally the
    Lib Dems have had a good record on civil liberties. In 2010 there
    were 550,000 access requests for communications data but no
    breakdown. Even the FBI only made 17,000 in the same year!(hat tip
    David Davis) In Germany, which has sensibly refused to pass the EU
    Data Retention bill, out of 381 requests only two were for terrorism.
    We aren’t given figures and, most importantly, the British public has
    not been consulted. There is no independent regulator and the
    Information Commissioner has no powers over breaches in data
    protection. We must trust the police? Oh really!

  • In2minds

    Excellent
    article from Huppert, a Liberal Democrat who holds liberal views and
    regards liberal values as important, not all do. But generally the
    Lib Dems have had a good record on civil liberties. In 2010 there
    were 550,000 access requests for communications data but no
    breakdown. Even the FBI only made 17,000 in the same year!(hat tip
    David Davis) In Germany, which has sensibly refused to pass the EU
    Data Retention bill, out of 381 requests only two were for terrorism.
    We aren’t given figures and, most importantly, the British public has
    not been consulted. There is no independent regulator and the
    Information Commissioner has no powers over breaches in data
    protection. We must trust the police? Oh really!

    • roger

      Don’t hold up Germany as some kind of heaven, the other 379 were probably from the VerfassungshutzAmt, the modern version of the STASI. Protect the Constitution , nonsense!

  • In2minds

    “In exactly the same way, none of us would tolerate having a CCTV camera in every room…..” Well they are in the toilets of schools!

  • Olaf

    Computers + money! The answer to every problem from people who no nothing about either.

  • Olaf

    Computers + money! The answer to every problem from people who no nothing about either.

  • Frederick James

    Does he mean “evidence-based policy” or is it a clever Cambridge-professor joke I don’t understand?

    Edit: actually, “policy-based evidence” is an apt description of a lot of green politics so perhaps he means it!

    • telemachus

      Not sure of your actual point but you are correct this green leftie does not understand that to catch terrorists yo need to read the texts of all potential suspects and look at their face book sites.
      When you suspect a repulsive paedophile you need to trawl his facebook and sew upo all his contacts so that you can jump on them all when you lift the index scroat before they ditch the evidence.
      There are too many bleeding hearts in parliament who do not want to protect us from these worms

      • ToryOAP

        Shut up troll.

      • roger

        there are two kinds of terrorists , the really dangerous ones and the ‘walts’ . No means of comms snooping will defeat the former, they use internet cafe Skype, throwaway mobiles, postcards and all the other tradecraft.
        Only the groups like environmentalists and anti-war protesters etc. get hammered by these snoopers. RIPA is the Act that is first in line for repeal, it is pure 1984.

        • telemachus

          You would not believe how difficult it is to find even the simplest data under current RIPA rules
          I have personal knowledge of a disappearance possible murder where the justification of need to get electronic data was so complex that it markedly delayed crucial enquiries

        • ButcombeMan

          You are wrong. Criminality of the most sophisticated kind still gets defeated by cumulative errors. You make a common mistake of those unfamilar with intelligence work and how it is done. If not the target individual’s errors, it is errors by their contacts and family.

          Electronic CONTACT data retention (not CONTENT) for a limited time, is no great threat to anyone except those with criminality in mind. It is only extending to newer electronic contact methods, the regime that already exists and has always existed, for the land line telephone.

          We could & should argue about the detail of how and by whom access gets authorised, but the fact of it being there for a time period is unthreatening to the innocent.

          • telemachus

            Bravo
            We need more prspicacious posts like this

          • Nicholas

            I guessed that you must be part of the problem not the solution. Now I know it. And “nothing to hide nothing to fear”? How that manages to be both patronising and naive. You do the embryonic Stasi great credit and your abuse of those who disagree with the approach you support tells us all we need to know about the likes of you and what you mean for this country. Oh, how silly are we to question and doubt the wisdom and integrity of those set over us and which gathers greater and greater powers to monitor every aspect of our “little” lives.

            But you never responded on the list of potential “criminals” in the Act, not just terrorists and paedophiles but a rather broader net that includes ambiguous categories – “public safety” (there is a term to conjure with and contemplate the abuse of power), people who allegedly owe the state and its agents “fees” – and it can be extended at the whim of the Secretary of State. Imagine that in the hands of a neo-socialist government determined to create a one-party state.
            But the cherry on the top of your particular propaganda cake is that you have been endorsed by none other than telemachus. Way to go.

      • Jelly Jim

        So who will protect us from worms like you?

        • telemachus

          Your own wit and repartee

  • http://www.coffeehousewall.co.uk/ Coffeehousewall

    Why is a Lib Dem MP invited to post on this? Others can consider the quality of what is written, but it seems very, very clear that the Spectator is being positioned in a new Leftward space and the owners/editors are hoping that it won’t be noticed.

    It has been.

    • John

      Why does it matter? Are you really so tribal that someone wearing the wrong colour’s opinions don’t count? How petty. The lib dems are in government in case you hadn’t noticed.

      • http://www.coffeehousewall.co.uk/ Coffeehousewall

        You are a teacher? Yes? And you believe that unlimited immigration is a suitable punishment for the colonisation (and civilisation) of much of the world. So I imagine you are already a socialist. If you don’t understand why it is problematic that a supposedly conservative publication is force feeding its readers socialism then that says more about your understanding of what is going on than anything else.

        When it comes to socialism, yes, there needs to be a tribalism. Socialism is destroying our nation, and the Spectator is complicit in it.

        • http://www.facebook.com/richard.stanfordbrown Richard Stanford Brown

          If you hadn’t noticed most Conservative MP’s support Socialist and Keynesian policies. The Spectator would do well to further distance itself from the Conservative party’, by continuing to defend freedom and oppose taxation, so as not to follow the Tories into the trap that is the mythical ‘centre.

    • Jelly Jim

      So freedom, liberty and privacy are ‘Leftward’ ideals, are they?

      Very amusing.

      • http://www.coffeehousewall.co.uk/ Coffeehousewall

        Freedom, liberty and privacy mean something very different to socialists. You miss the point however, which is that the Spectator is choosing not to use conservative sources for any material, and has taken this position for some time. It is just very noticeable this week that most of the contributors are explicitly or implicitly socialist or represent socialist organisations. If you expect a socialist to present conservative ideas and ideals then you are sorely mistaken.

        • John

          Or that this week Conservatives have been busy getting ready for conference?

          Also yes I am a teacher, but I’ve got no idea what that has to do about my views on immigration. As far as I’m aware the Spectator is right leaning but is not written or sanctioned by Conservative central office. It’s an educated, sensibly written publication which occasionally invites other people with something interesting to say to write for it.

          If you are so insecure in your opinions and so paranoid about the risks of socialism infecting the minds of the Spectator’s poor vulnerable readers, then might I suggest you stop reading it and return to the Daily Mail cave you crawled out of. I’m sure you’ll find solace there for your Fascist agenda.

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