Opinion: Time for a deal on surveillance

Like many of my fellow Lib Dems I have had steam coming out my ears these last few days after reading over the weekend that the Coalition was considering the mass, unchecked surveillance of the entire population’s emails, telephone calls, texts and tweets, as well as messages sent through Facebook and through games consoles like the Xbox.

Initial attempts at comforting growing rage amongst Lib Dems – the fact that there was to be no central database and that the contents of communications would still only be viewable with a warrant – missed the point. The plans still seemed to be an extension of the bad bits of the current setup, and indeed talk of “real time” surveillance suggested at least to me that the current system whereby information has to be requested from the companies that hold it (hardly the most burdensome of hurdles) would itself be bypassed.

By sometime on Tuesday afternoon I was digging out my membership card just in case I needed to burn it in protest. To say I was angry would have been a serious understatement.

Thankfully the dam burst on Tuesday evening with the following day’s papers, hot off the press, confirming that the relevant clauses would be pored over with a heightened level of scrutiny. The white-hot anger of Lib Dem activists and even some of our more liberal Conservative friends making it plain that the mania of the security and intelligence services to treat us all as criminals unworthy of trust and respect would not be waved obediently through.

So, having seen off the initial surprise attack, perhaps now there is a little time to consider Mark Pack’s suggestion about what our considered response should be. After all, we are liberals, not anti-State anarchists. The State does need to find and stop terrorists, paedophiles and the like. Just because that justification is used and abused by the security and intelligence services when lobbying for ever-greater powers doesn’t mean it’s not justification for some powers.

It is not unreasonable for people with the job of protecting us to have the power to find out who some people are calling, texting, whatever, in the right circumstances. And technology is changing, meaning that ever more options and media are open to “the bad guys”.

So, what about a deal? Powers to monitor new technologies are granted to the police and other bodies, but only in exchange for a tightening up of the system. In return, the power to access communications data should be stripped from local councils as well as all the hotchpotch of random groups, like the Gambling Commission and the Postal Services Commission (the full list is here; hat-tip to the BBC). Only law enforcement bodies need to have these powers.

Plus: access to any information, including the information currently obtainable without a warrant, should instead now require one. This would remove from every organisation, including the police and the security and intelligence agencies, the power to snoop at their own discretion.

Under this deal, the people fighting terrorists, paedophiles and all the other nasty people who do need to be stopped, get the new powers they say they need; in return, we get rid of Labour’s legacy of having any Tom, Dick or Harry snooping on us and we tighten up the system, so that a warrant is needed for everything. That would be responsible and liberal.

* Stuart Bonar was the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate in Plymouth Moor View.

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  • This sounds eminently sensible. The problem is that we have a very bad legacy from the Labour years of powers being expanded without a subsequent expansion in safeguards and public accountability. In order for the deal to work, the accountability elements should be put forward first: I suggest a “Privacy Charter” of sorts, whereby the types of electronic communications that cannot be monitored without a warrant are spelled out – the tightening you describe would be put into this element. Once this is established, then allow the police to monitor the additional forms of communication you describe.

    Just my .02.

  • “So, having seen off the initial surprise attack, perhaps now there is a little time to consider”

    Seen off in what way? As Richard says what is being proposed is pause, consultation, continue. A year or so back The Thick of It’s facebook page carried a status, “Just once I’d like to see Nick Clegg say ‘you know what David, if you want to do that, get a majority. Now go away*”

    That doesn’t seem a bad thing to say every so often!

    This was legislatio that was planned for the Queens Speech which will have passed through the Quad. Either Nick agreed with it, didn’t understand it or didn’t read it

    [*Except they used a much ruder word for go away that would have me banished to moderatorial purgatory :-)]

  • David Pollard 5th Apr '12 - 12:35pm

    This is nonsense. There is no way any organisation can monitor all internet traffic: they would get lost in the noise. its reminiscent of the CRB register for EVERYONE who works with children. Its so complex that anyone who really wants to slide past the system can do so with a little thought.
    There was an interesting article about Margaret Hodge in the paper the other day. Among other things she said that civil servants have pet projects, and if they cannot persuade one minister to do it, they keep trying until one minister accepts.

  • Stuart Bonar 5th Apr '12 - 1:43pm

    @Christian & Simon: thanks for the support
    @David & Jock: please re-read what I write; I’m suggesting that a more limited range of organisations than now have more limited access than now to a wider range of communications, so I’m not suggesting that they eavesdrop on everyone. If you believe that the State should never have any access, whatever the safeguards, to any communications information from anyone then I do indeed disagree with you.
    @Hywel: seen off in the sense that the brakes have been applied, and the anger felt by people such as myself has been felt; change to surveillance law is needed, and opening up the debate, as has happened, is a good thing.

  • Daniel Henry 5th Apr '12 - 3:23pm

    Sounds good.
    It seems as though the security services are likely to get their way to a degree, so getting in early with demands of tightening up the safeguards as a compromise sounds like a good strategy.

    The delay will give us time to look at the proposals and decide what we need changing.

  • Adam Bernard 5th Apr '12 - 6:51pm

    Richard Flowers: well said. Information that ISPs have no need to collect and keep, they should not collect and keep. The best safeguard on data being leaked, sold, data-mined, hacked by journalists, or requisitioned for litigious civil cases on copyright infringement, is for that data not to exist.

  • Stuart Mitchell 5th Apr '12 - 6:55pm

    “…the power to access communications data should be stripped from local councils… Only law enforcement bodies need to have these powers.”

    But councils have responsibility for several areas of law enforcement and investigation, from health and safety to trading standards, environmental health to child abuse.

    What you and other Lib Dems are discovering at the moment is that these kinds of issues are oh-so much more difficult for a governing party than an opposition one.

  • @Daniel – thanks for the support; I think the same – get in early with demands for heightened safeguards
    @Jock – I wouldnt say what I am suggesting is the only thing I’d support; I like your idea too. I think we just need to be putting these ideas forward. So, would be pleased to back your idea too 🙂
    @Richard & Adam – I hope you’ll agree though that we need to change the law as it stands
    @Stuart – I don’t think issues like health & safety justify snooping at all; on child abuse, if councils suspect anything then they can go via the police; not that hard
    @Andy – yes, sorry, I shld have said that warrants shld be signed by judges, not politicians – agree totally

  • Stuart Mitchell 6th Apr '12 - 10:11am

    @Stuart With the police losing thousands of officers, this is not a good time for them to be taking over social services. Health and safety may be trivial to you but it’s an extremely serious matter for some.

  • Stuart Mitchell 6th Apr '12 - 3:25pm

    That’s as may be, but “Big Brother Watch”‘s survey of councils found many cases where the powers had been used in child protection cases. Not to mention numerous other serious criminal investigations which were the responsibility of the councils rather than police. So the OP should be more clear about what he means when he talks of restricting the powers to law enforcement bodies.

    One more random fact I came across while looking into this… The most recent report by the Interception of Communications Commissioner shows that the number of interception warrants issued by the Home Secretary rose dramatically (by 10%) after the coalition came to power in 2010. Yet another example of how the coalition’s actions on civil liberties are at variance with the rhetoric.

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