Stories came out yesterday, leaked as ever from some unknown source, which have led to justifiable outrage about proposals to capture all our online communications. We all know that one shouldn’t entirely trust what is in newspapers, especially when the security services are involved and there is a palpable lack of detailed announcements, but liberals everywhere are rightly anxious.
I’m extremely concerned about the extension of state surveillance, and have fought hard to stop it. Since I first got wind of the proposals in 2010, I’ve had a series of meetings with industry experts and others about it. I asked the Prime Minister about it in October 2010 and, while the details remain cloaked, I have some idea of what might be proposed.
Communication Service Providers (CSPs such as your mobile phone operator or your internet provider) are already required to keep information about your communications for 12 months – who you ring, which domain name you visit, but not the content of the call or text. This can then be accessed by the police and security services using RIPA – and by others, in some cases with even less safeguards than RIPA!
Labour tried to take this already illiberal position further, with a massive project called the Intercept Modernisation Programme – this would have stored all of this information and more in a huge central database, so the police and security services could access it easily and at any time. The policy was a dream to totalitarian control freaks; a nightmare for anyone who cares about freedom.
This project is dead. We and others fought hard to stop it, joined by the ISP industry itself. And there are no plans to re-enact this scheme – the PM confirmed to me that ‘We are not considering a central Government database to store all communications information’. If there was such a proposal I would oppose it to the last.
But that still leaves the existing CSP-specific databases they are required by law to have. What the Government does with these databases is absolutely critical and a great concern. The Coalition Agreement is expressly clear on this point. ‘We will end the storage of internet and email records without good reason’.
What’s a ‘good reason’ for keeping them? The security services insist they have good reason for keeping lots of things, but frankly, I’ve never found the argument ‘we know but we can’t tell you’ very persuasive. Especially when it is overused by the same people to argue for every power they want, from 90-day detention to control orders to the existence of WMDs in Iraq.
Unfortunately, we are bound by the EU data retention directive so unwinding the existing system is unlikely to happen, despite our continued calls for reform at the EU level. But the security services push ever on, and the Home Secretary appears to trust them. And now they are pushing for a supposedly ‘modest’ increase in powers.
I haven’t seen the details of these proposals – not for want of asking – but it’s clear to me that what we want is more safeguards, not more powers for the state to keep data. We have already killed off some of the obviously illiberal proposals that have been floating around. The idea that if you send or receive an encrypted message you should be legally required to give the state the key is completely gone.
And some of the suggestions floating around of what might happen are simply wrong – to quote Nick Clegg: ‘I am totally opposed, totally opposed to the idea of Governments reading people’s emails at will or creating a totally new central Government database. The point is we’re not doing any of that and I wouldn’t allow us to do any of that. I’m totally opposed as a Liberal Democrat and as someone who believes in people’s privacy and civil liberties.’
I’ve asked for both the Home Secretary and the Head of the Office of Security and Counter-Terrorism, Charles Farr, to be called publicly in front of the Home Affairs Select Committee (on which I serve) to explain what is and is not proposed, so that we can all see what they are actually proposing. I’m delighted that the Chair, Keith Vaz, has agreed to try to arrange this as soon as we can.
What I would like to see is strong safeguards – better than we currently have under RIPA and other legislation. It is currently far too easy for people – eg at DWP – to access communications data, and this has to stop.
The Home Office wants to have access to information about not just who we text but who we tweet, who we skype to as well as who we ring. Now, this may seem to be no more objectionable than the current position but, technically, it is a complete mess. Your Internet Service Provider doesn’t have a clue who you facebook, and doesn’t want to either.
No expert I’ve ever spoken to can see how this could possibly be done without great expense and without allowing access to the actual message that was sent – which is not legal without a warrant from the Home Secretary.
Together with the excellent Dr Jenny Woods, we therefore wrote an amendment to my civil liberties policy at the last conference, spelling out what we want to see – the Liberal Democrat requirements for any proposals – strengthened safeguards, ensuring no ‘accidental’ interception of data, and trying to change the underpinning EU data directive. It says that we back the right to privacy by:
a) ensuring that there shall be no interception of telephone calls, SMS messages, social media, internet or any other communications without named, specific and time-limited warrants;
b) guaranteeing that any communications data kept by service providers in accordance with the EU Data Retention Directive are kept securely by the service providers, and that they be only released to government bodies with strict and strengthened safeguards;
c) ensuring that service providers are not mandated by law to collect communications data by any method that would also provide access to content information, unless specifically authorised by a warrant;
d) ensuring that service providers are not mandated by law to collect third-party communications data for non-business purposes by any method;
e) renegotiating the EU Data Retention Directive and changing how it is implemented into UK law, to provide a better balance towards privacy.’
There still may not be a Bill at all in the Queen’s speech. That would be my preference. But if there is one, it must be one that increases the current safeguards not that just feeds the powers of the state. Strong safeguards are critical, they are the very essence of our civil liberties and no liberal can support any state surveillance without them.
Liberals everywhere must watch this space with caution.
* Julian Huppert was the Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge from 2010-15