Theresa May does a Paul Daniels on internet surveillance – but the devil is in the detail

Theresa May has pulled off quite a trick in the last couple of weeks. She built up the impression that the government would store the entire nation’s internet browsing history (which must have had computer storage salespeople salivating heavily) and ban encryption (effectively banning WhatsApp and Snapchat).

But now she’s spun the upturned eggcups around the table and revealed that she won’t be doing that after all, so isn’t she soooo reasonable?

That leaves what she was intending to propose all along in the draft white paper (Investigatory Powers Bill) to be published this week. It’s classic Home Office smoke and mirrors.

Alistair Carmichael has commented:

…the devil will be in the detail and we must wait for the Bill before we can tell whether the Conservatives have really listened.

We will carefully scrutinise Wednesday’s draft bill. In Coalition we blocked the so-called snooper’s charter because it was disproportionate and intrusive, and we would again oppose any measure which would threaten our civil liberties.

…it is disappointing to see Theresa May still won’t commit to judicial authorisation, this is a key reform for Liberal Democrats and we will fight tooth and nail for it.​

The executive signing off their own warrants has no place in a 21st century democracy.”

The latter point is key. As pointed out by Julian Huppert, Clause 94 of the 1984 Telecommunications Act gives the Secretary of State virtually limitless powers to order the telecomms companies to do anything he or she wants them to do.

This bill is an opportunity to, at last, open up government surveillance to proper, open, parliamentary and judicial scrutiny with very clear, transparent rules on what the security services can and cannot do. Making the Intelligence and Security Committee properly accountable to parliament is also a crucially needed step.

In the words of Dame Stella Rimington, former head of MI5:

It’s very important for our intelligence services to have a kind of oversight which people have confidence in. I think that it may mean it is now the time to look again at the oversight.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist and member of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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  • Does anyone know what will be seen if you use a VPN? Would it just be the ip for the VPN? I ask because it will make it quite useless to have these details if all it says is that the customer has used a logless VPN from Panama. Unless of course what’s going on in Parliament is a smokescreen for what really is going on at GCHQ.

  • I thought from the headline that this would go straight into “You’ll like it… but not a lot”. Am disappoint.

  • nigel hunter 1st Nov '15 - 11:37pm

    She has bowed to popular pressure? .She does not want an ‘Osborne disaster’ in the Lords .It would not do her chances for future party leader much good. True, the devil is in the detail, make sure the warrants for searches should be signed by a judge, not a politician. Equally keep an eye on things after the event falls of the news, beware of Trojan horses.

  • Mark: you’d say that, but Carlile was one of those establishment politicians who was defending the extra-judicial and illegal killing of Reyaad Khan.

  • Eddie Sammon 2nd Nov '15 - 2:03pm

    If there’s one issue I don’t trust Lib Dems on it’s surveillance. Anything to do with surveillance seems to create a moral panic and I don’t understand it. Those plotting attacks are criminals too, we shouldn’t just try to catch those who have actually carried them out.

    And when it comes to Alex Carlile: Until recently I never even knew concern about extra-judicial killings was a thing. Killing someone on a battlefield is not the same as killing a prisoner.

    Some might see Carlile as a liability, others see him as someone possibly taking on the fright of counter terrorism that many Lib Dems seem to have.

  • I mostly agree with Lord Carlisle, I think Mark’s being alarmist, we as a nation have been intercepting communications for hundreds of years, prior to the invention of the phone. My issue is that we flog it to the NSA wholesale and put providers in an impossible position. The issue of judges approval seems null to me – how would you know if GCHQ broke this law? If a known terrorist discarded one smartphone and started using another whilst carrying out a plot, would you really go to a judge in the middle of the chase? You had everything in your power to stop him/her killing innocent people, but you chose to go to a court room instead? That’s not going to look good and it seems implausible to me; this is where we as a party fall down on this issue. Saying “snoopers charter” over and over again is analogous to saying “weak on national security” if we can’t offer the public a decent alternative, and we’ve proven incapable of that.

    I think this is a subject where we appear particularly inept. We know GCHQ has poor oversight and little regard for the law, I’ve got no idea why people think this would change that. I think a better pursuit would be to address the transparency, oversight and public accountability aspects of our security services; far more important than if a judge that may or may not understand a particular issue rubber stamps surveillance (don’t infer I think the home secretary should be doing this either – just as bizarre).

    Also, disagree with Paul’s assessment of VPN & TOR security but hope others share his beliefs! 🙂

  • I am concerned about solely relying on judges with regard to security. Judges are not elected (thank goodness) so are there proposals for them to be taken off the list if they allow something that the public don’t agree with? They also have political sympathies which might make them decide in favour of government or otherwise. Ministers, opposition leaders and individual politicians might themselves come under scrutiny if they are thought to have links with terrorists if a judge can decide these matters without any form of scrutiny. I think this should be a belt and braces job so both the Home Secretary and a judge should decide. I am genuinely unsure exactly what our position is on this so would welcome any reassurance or comments to enlighten me.

  • From what I’ve read it does seem as if part of the thrust of this bill is to formally grant the agencies the powers they’ve been using todate – as uncovered by Edward Snowden…

    >Does anyone know what will be seen if you use a VPN?
    At a basic level the IP header information is fully readable, so any eavesdropping can record the conversation and determine details about the end points. The questions are what s the form of the eaves dropping and what can they do with the conversation and can they do it in real-time. As revealed by Edward Snowden, the agencies are able perform elaborate man-in-the-middle mascarade attacks, so can fool your systems into thinking they are connected when infact there is an eavesdropper in the middle transparently relaying the conversation…
    However, there are questions now being raised over the fundamental maths and implementation of VPN cryptography, namely many packages have been found to not be very random and hence use the same prime numbers over and over again…

    Basically, my attitude is that VPN’s and other internet security measures are currently good enough to prevent casual eavesdropping, but will fail if subject to the full scrutiny of GCHQ et al. If you have real need to not have GCHQ et al be able to read your messages then either don’t use off-the-shelf ‘consumer-grade’ security or don’t use the Internet, phone system etc.

  • Mark: The death penalty is illegal under all circumstances in the European Union, neither were the RAF authorised by Parliament to undertake military operations in Syria; in fact, they were explicitly voted down.

  • A Social Liberal 2nd Nov '15 - 8:15pm

    Mark Wright said

    ” Killing an enemy soldier in a war-zone isn’t “extra-judicial” or “illegal”. “.

    It is when we have not in a state of war with the country in which that soldier is. Thus we as a country did not attack the Admiral Graf Spee when she docked in Montevideo.

  • Sarah Noble

    There are millions of men, women and children risking their lives to escape people like Reyaad Khan and his mates. I wonder if they would support your view that it was an illegal killing. Reyaad Khan joined a group that murdered, raped and tortured people – I think that makes him a legal target in most peoples eyes.

  • A key consideration when reviewing the bill, when it finally gets presented to Parliament, is whether it complies with the EU laws on data protection and human rights that the European Court recently re-affirmed in their judgement concerning data safe harbour and specifically the disclosure of personal data to the state that the US Patriot Act effectively mandated (with respect to this particular case, inspite of the soothing words being spoken by various senior EU representatives, nothing has yet been put on the table that addresses the fundamental issues raised by the US Patriots Act over data protection…) Hence this may be one of those times when being in the EU works in our favour…

  • Mark, malc: the airstrikes in Syria have still not been authorised, and indeed, according to tommorow’s Observer, Cameron has dropped plans to have Parliament authorise them. Nor are we officially in a state of war with ISIS.

    Regardless of his actions, Khan is still not a “legal target” in any moral sense because the death penalty is illegal. Even if it wasn’t, Khan would still be entitled, morally if not legally, to a fair trial and due process. If you disagree with that, then sorry, you aren’t a liberal.

    If we dispense with the very values that make us human, don’t be surprised when our enemies treat us like animals.

  • Eddie Sammon 3rd Nov '15 - 12:16am

    I had to have a rant on Twitter about this because I didn’t want to break the “on-topic” rules, but someone needs to counter this poor idea that soldiers plotting attacks in Syria against us should be “brought to a trial”. How? Are we going to send the police to knock on their doors? Or shall we wait until planes with British tourists are blowing up? Or perhaps suffering the same fate as the Tunisia ones, or the Charlie Hebdo artists? What about the ordinary Jewish people shopping in Paris who were gunned down? The gay people thrown off buildings? The sex slaves? ISIS are the lowest of the low and everyone who willingly joins them is a fair target.

    And if I’m not a “liberal” for that then I don’t want to be one.

  • This started out as a criticism of a Tory policy and I wondered how long it would take before the first anti Corbyn/Labour post appeared; not long…..
    From the killing of Reyaad Khan how long before we have ‘suspected terrorists’ killed or imprisoned without trial? After all, we are told every time a ‘liberty’ is infringed that “The innocent have nothing to fear”…I wonder how many times that hollow phrase echoed in the mind of Shaker Aamer?

  • If Khan was on British soil and ready to press the button, I’d be okay with armed police shooting him in self-defence, but not a moment before. Remember Jean-Charles de Menezes?

    Khan was killed, without due process, two thousand miles away from twenty thousand feet in a military operation that Parliament expressly did not authorise. That’s fundamentally immoral and illiberal.

  • David Evans 3rd Nov '15 - 4:59pm

    I think it is quite a lot more complex than what Mark says, particularly as a key aspect of the tragedy of the killing of Jean-Charles de Menezes was that the officers who killed him had been led to believe that he was a known, probably armed, terrorist/suicide bomber and so a shoot to kill approach was justified.

  • Eddie Sammon 3rd Nov '15 - 5:37pm

    We need to have a debate on air/drone strikes another time because people aren’t going to back-down and it is a bit off topic.


  • ………………… It’s an account of criminally negligent idiocy. ………………

    And, of course, it’s the only time such a thing has happened. Also, it could only happen in the UK ( where our security forces can plan well in advance) and not in Syria where our intelligence is ‘patchy’, to say the least…
    As for “Parliament doesn’t authorise military operations, and it would be absurd to require it to do so for anything on that scale”…Have our intelligence/military carte blanche to kill terrorist suspects abroad?. Has the “Lillehammer affair” been forgotten?

  • So Khan was just a ‘one off’ was he?
    There are no plans for more such ‘executions’?
    There will be no ‘mistakes’, or ‘collateral damage’, as we will always be 100% sure of our target?

    If you believe that the, to use your words, “Feel free”

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