Opinion: The case for increased surveillance hasn’t been made

At the heart of the draft Communications Bill is a drive to make it easier for a range of officials to access information about people’s communications.  The Home Office maintains that officals need this push-button surveillance in order to help fight emotive crimes such as terrorism and paedophiles.

Despite widespread criticisms of the bill put forward by the Home Office to achieve those ends, most politicians appear to be uncritically accepting their underlying premise – that officials need to be granted more powers to snoop on citizens. Just take for instace Clegg’s statement on the bill:
“They were very clear that there is a problem that must be addressed to give law enforcement agencies the powers they need to fight crime. I agree.”

Given the UK population is already subject to high levels of surveillance, the acceptance that there is a need for further powers is startling. It must surley be reasonable that we ask for evidence that demostrates surveillance  is working, particulary when surveillance is an expensive buisness and many police forces are facing cuts in spending.

Yet nowhere in the hours of evidence that joint parliamentary committee has shifted through is it clear where the Home Office have made thw case for more surveillance. What little financial and statistical evidence has been supplied by the department has was described as “fanciful and misleading” in the Joint Parliamentary Committee’s report.  The central question therefore remains answered; what problem the bill seeks to solve that cannot be handled already?

Already officals have wide ranging powers of surveillance under RIPA (Regulatory and Investigatory Powers Act 2000) legislation. Hundreds of governmental bodies, unelected quangoes and law enforcement agencies can self-authorise access to our communications data. There are around 500,000 of these requests made under RIPA every year, that’s around 57 every hour, almost one a minute.

The sheer volume of these requests to access people’s communications data is mind-boggling, and the powers available for officals to investigate citizens are immense. The volume of these requests ought to be a cause for concern, yet rather than prompting a review of RIPA legeslation it has become a justification for not subjecting officials to independent judicial oversight.

“There are also practical considerations; the sheer volume of communications data requests would place a huge burden on the judiciary and a judicial authorisation process would lead to delays in access to communications data” –Joint Parliamentary Committees report on the draft Communications Data bill.

It should be the case that surveillance powers as significant as capturing and accessing people’s communications data ought to cause the investigating powers some time and trouble to use. By placing the power to authorise surveillance requests in the hands of an independent judiciary we help keep state power in check and prevents abuses of power by officials.

Free societies are founded on systems that place such checks on the powers that are granted to officials. Far from making the case for push-button surveillance, the case for no surveillance without a warrant seems stronger than ever.

* Cllr James Baker is the leader of Calderdale Liberal Democrats and the Campaigns and grassroots activism manager for the Open Rights Group.

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3 Comments

  • I had thought that one thing that the Liberal Democrats might be able to do, even with their relatively small access to power, was to decrease the manifestations of the omnipresent, intrusive Surveillance State and return people some small measure of an expectation of privacy. It seems that was too much to ask. But why?

  • James Baker 13th Dec '12 - 1:26pm

    David I think there was initially some progress with the scrapping of the National Identity Scheme, and Contact Point. The protection of freedom bill went some way to improve things. However what has been given with one hand has been taken away with the other. For example the Coalition is consulting on opening up access to private information on the Pupil’s database, is pressing ahead with plans to allow private research companies access to NHS records, and has published (in draft form) this awful Communications Data Bill.

  • Andrew Suffield 13th Dec '12 - 11:38pm

    I had thought that one thing that the Liberal Democrats might be able to do, even with their relatively small access to power, was to decrease the manifestations of the omnipresent, intrusive Surveillance State and return people some small measure of an expectation of privacy.

    The reason why we’re having this draft bill process, rather than killing it outright, is to give us a shot at rewriting the bill to do precisely that.

    Unfortunately it looks like the Tories have closed ranks behind May, so we’re probably not going to win this one.

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