The Snoopers’ Charter is back. On Tuesday, MPs will vote on the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill, which is to be rushed through the House of Commons in a single day. The Bill will reinstate and expand the powers of certain public sector employees to access and monitor details of our emails, texts and phone calls.
These powers were under threat when the European Court ruled that the EU Data Retention Directive – which forced telecoms operators to keep records of all our communications for up to two years – was invalid as contrary to human rights.
The new law will restore the status quo and, despite what the government claims, expand state powers of surveillance while failing to assuage human rights concerns. When announced last week, it was the third example in a single day of the growing conflict of interest between government and citizen.
Simply put, the conflict is over whether greater ease of governing should be bought at the expense of eroding our hard-won civil liberties.
By increasing state surveillance powers, the Data Retention Bill will make it easier for government to govern. It ensures that despite the European Court, our records will be kept available for authorised state employees to access without a warrant, which they can do for any reason from tax collection to “mitigating… damage to a person’s physical or mental health”. Would-be snoopers are also given a wider range of targets, including webmail – previously an ambiguous area according to Graham Smith, author of “Internet Law and Regulation” – and possibly other remote storage services, too.
But as the European Court rightly found, the cost of giving government this powerful tool is that everyone’s privacy is invaded, whether they are under suspicion or not. Since the range of people who can be authorised to snoop is so broad, including council employees, and the permissible grounds for snooping go far beyond the prevention of crime or terrorism, the result is a serious loss of liberty and the right to privacy for law-abiding citizens.
It makes little difference that the snooping Bill targets the records of our conversations, rather than their content. One can deduce a lot about the content of a message from the identities of sender and receiver, and the timestamp. If we know that Antony is having text conversations late at night with Cleopatra, we don’t need to read the messages to infer they are having an affair.
The government could have followed the European Court’s ruling by admitting that the existing data retention law had gone too far and giving more privacy back to the people. Instead, they are defying it by reinstating and slightly tightening the harsh old rules.
Westminster’s frosty reception for this European initiative contrasts with its warm welcome for the European Arrest Warrant. Unlike the European Court’s privacy ruling, however, the Arrest Warrant favours government at the citizen’s expense.
The Arrest Warrant makes it easier for the government to recapture those who commit crimes in the UK, but flee to the EU. Unfortunately, it also makes it much easier for British citizens accused of a crime abroad to be extradited and face trial in a foreign court that has none of the procedural protections for the wrongly accused – jury trial, the presumption of innocence and so on – that are some of our most cherished civil rights.
There was consternation when it emerged that the Arrest Warrant allowed West Country residents Michael Turner and Jason McGoldrick to be extradited to Hungary in 2009 and kept in an ex-KGB prison without charge for months. Now the government is opting back in to the Arrest Warrant. Our freedom is sacrificed for Westminster’s convenience.
The third and final example last week of this blatant conflict of interests was the appointment of Baroness Butler-Sloss, a retired judge with a track record of whitewashes, to head the Westminster child abuse inquiry. Butler-Sloss has already had to apologise over covering up claims of sex abuse by a Bishop in order to protect the Church of England. No doubt this concern for the establishment’s reputation made her a natural choice for the new role. But victims and citizens have a moral right to a full and transparent investigation of whether and how our centre of government became tainted by criminality in the 1980s. Butler-Sloss seems unlikely to provide this.
Tomorrow, Parliament will follow an emergency procedure more common in wartime. There is no emergency, just a forlorn hope raised by the European Court that our government will restrict its snooping in the interest of citizens’ privacy – a hope soon to be crushed as the Bill is rushed through in a single day. Yet this abuse of process has the backing of all three old parties. Each of them has a shot at government in 2015.The new law will make their task of governing easier. But whether in this kangaroo court of Parliament, a kangaroo court in Europe, or Butler-Sloss’s kangaroo court of inquiry, Westminster has decided that we may no longer rely on fair and transparent procedure to protect our hard-won liberties.