Data Retention Act

Last week, the Government announced that the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill (DRIP) #DRIP is to be rushed through Parliament with almost no time for debate.  Various human rights groups, including Amnesty International, have launched a case against the Government to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal.

Why the panic?  The need for a law arose because the European Court of Justice in April nullified existing data retention powers.  The obvious question therefore  is why wasn’t something done before?  David Davies MP has called this rush to legislate ‘a theatrical emergency’.  Tom Watson MP said it was a ‘stitch up.’

wire tap imageThe Snowden revelations have shown the extent and reach of interception by the Government to be on an enormous scale.  Over half a million requests for data have been made.  It was revealed that RIPA — the act which is supposed to limit how much snooping can go on — is widely sidestepped because emails, Skype calls, Facebook messages and tweets are routed through American servers and are thus exempt.  Cables which carry traffic across the Atlantic are tapped by GCHQ.

In parallel with this panic legislation, is the scandal concerning alleged child abuse activity in Parliament.  Here, the files have disappeared or have been shredded.  In recent years we have had the expenses scandal, the Leveson enquiry which exposed serious wrongdoing in the Metropolitan police, government and the Murdoch group and now the child abuse allegations. Files possibly revealing extraordinary rendition flights to Diego Garcia are also believed lost.

Yet we are invited to give the government more — or rather reinstate — powers lost because of the CJEU judgement.  It is to be hoped that even at this late stage, parliament will act to prevent further intrusions into personal liberty in the name of catching ‘terrorists, serious and organised crime and paedophiles’.  Interesting that arms dealers were not on the list.

It may be worth recalling the words in a report by the International Commission of Jurists, the Geneva based NGO, which carried out a three global study on the ‘War on Terror’.

In the course of this enquiry, we have been shocked by the extent of the damage done over the past seven years by excessive or abusive counter-terrorism measures in a wide range of countries around the world.  Many governments, ignoring the lessons of history, have allowed themselves to be rushed into hasty responses to terrorism that have undermined cherished values and violated human rights.  The result is a serious threat to the integrity of the international human rights legal framework.’

These words are echoed by Dame Stella Rimington the former head of MI5:

”[the Government] … attempt to pass laws which interfere with people’s privacy … it would be better that the Government recognised that there are risks, rather than frightening people in order to be able to pass laws which restrict civil liberties, precisely one of the objects of terrorism: that we live in fear and under a police state.’

Ray Corrigan, Senior Lecturer in Technology with the Open University, writing in Open Minds said;

I would argue there is no balance to be achieved between ‘individual right to privacy and the collective right to security’ [quoting Malcolm Rifkind, chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee].  The collective right to security requires an individual and collective right to privacy.  It is fundamentally incompatible with the rule of law – and a healthy society – to collect information about every member of the population in the hope of conducting post hoc fishing expeditions to look for evidence of misbehaviour. 

At present, the public are surprisingly relaxed about this continuing and increasing intrusion.  If however, a policeman turned up at someone’s doorstep, without a warrant or any reason or cause, and insisted on searching the house and looking through personal documents, there would be an outcry.  Protestations by the policeman that the person ‘might be a terrorist or paedophile’ would be swept aside in a torrent of media and public fury.  MPs would rush to the airways to express their concern and the prime minister would be challenged about it at PMQ.  Yet the routine interception of emails and the like evince almost no concern.  Only a handful of MPs are likely to vote against the Government.  Yet ultimately, what is the difference between a policeman on the doorstep and the state bugging your phone?

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