Rushing through the Snoopers' Charter will put our security at risk

Bulk surveillance is counterproductive and dangerous
Bulk surveillance is counterproductive and dangerous

By Silkie Carlo

Last month, three cross-party parliamentary committees published lengthy reports on the draft investigatory powers bill – the government’s landmark surveillance legislation. Between them, they came in at more than 250 pages and included 123 major recommendations for change.

The Science and Technology Committee called it "confusing". The Intelligence and Security Committee said it failed to "provide clarity and assurance". The Joint Committee on the draft bill concluded that the case for the bulk surveillance powers it contained, hadn’t been made – and that those powers had the potential to breach human rights.

In short, they called for a complete overhaul. The home secretary responded by insisting the government would "carefully consider" the committees' conclusions: "This is vital legislation, and we are absolutely determined to get it right," she said.

But yesterday – less than three weeks after the Joint Committee gave the draft its third pasting in a fortnight – the investigatory powers bill was published. And unbelievably, it is even worse than before.

So much for scrutiny. To claim that the many valid concerns of parliamentarians, campaigners and technology and legal experts could have been given more than a cursory glance in that time is absurd.

The Home Office hasn’t even taken the time to give the bill a proper facelift. In an attempt to answer to the Intelligence and Security Committee's damning criticism of the weak and 'inconsistent' privacy protections, Part 1 of the bill, formerly known as ‘General Protections’ has been renamed 'General Privacy Protections'.

Adding the word 'Privacy' to a title is not a substantial revision. Despite the three Committees' conclusion that the powers in the draft bill were too broad, safeguards too few, and crucial investigatory powers entirely missing – these issues simply haven't been addressed.

To continue to rush through such important and complex legislation at this breakneck pace, disregarding the hard work of cross-party MPs, doesn't just show contempt for parliamentary scrutiny, public debate and democracy – it puts Britain's security at risk.

This legislation will affect every single person in the country and has the potential to fundamentally change the relationship between the individual and the state. The powers it contains – mass interception, mass hacking, mass acquisition of communications data, the collection and retention of all our web browsing histories, retention and linking of huge databases containing innocent people's most sensitive information - come with huge risks for every person's privacy and security.

Beyond all that, the government has yet to address the elephant in the room – is mass surveillance actually the route down which our country should keep hurtling? Is the collection and retention of data on every single person in the country – not just those suspected of serious crime - necessary and will it actually help our agencies and police keep people safe?

All the home secretary could come up with for the Joint Committee was 16 pages of anecdotal evidence, much of which actually made the case for targeted – not bulk – surveillance.

Collecting everything and then trying to work out what it all means later, results in data on millions of innocent people being hauled into the system every minute of every day. It leaves intelligence analysts drowning in information. GCHQ's 'Karma Police' system, for example, creates a profile of every internet user in the country based on their browsing habits. GCHQ documents revealed by Edward Snowden show this collects around 1,000 records for every person living in the UK – about 64 billion – every day. Even as the biggest employer in Gloucestershire, GCHQ's staff face an impossible task in analysing that volume of information.

This approach is counterproductive and, in the long run, dangerous. It means the agencies are bound to miss vital leads in all the noise – and they have, time and time again. The terrorists who planned the 9/11, 7/7, Paris, and countless other attacks were known to the security services. Spying on every innocent citizen, just in case they might do something wrong, did not stop them.

But there is a better way. By using targeted surveillance methods to keep a close eye on the communications data of known suspects and their social networks, as well as on visitors of certain websites and those based in certain geographical areas, our intelligence agencies would find it easier to keep us safe.

As we all know, thanks to whistleblowers like Snowden, and subsequent legal challenges from Liberty and others, our government has been practising – and investing time and vast resources – in mass surveillance methods for years. Faced with the option of conducting the thorough evidence-based re-draft the investigatory powers bill needs, or simply cramming their fingers in their ears and pretending their plans are perfect, it has taken the easy route.

This legislation is once-in-a-generation. It's the UK's chance to become world leaders in effectively tackling terrorism and serious crime in our increasingly digital world, setting out robust safeguards for our privacy and security alongside effective surveillance measures targeted at those under suspicion.

This bill doesn't need a facelift – it needs an entire overhaul. Luckily, many MPs and peers from all parties understand the importance of getting this bill right, to make the important work of our agencies and police transparent, proportionate, effective and targeted. If the government expects a smooth passage through Parliament for this majorly flawed legislation, it should think again.

Silkie Carlo is a policy officer at Liberty

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.


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