Parliament debates security Bill

The Investigatory Powers Bill was debated in Parliament on 15 March in a lengthy second reading debate and there were many good quality contributions made by Members on all sides of the House.  Only days after the debate we had a terrible reminder of the terrorist threat with the attacks in Brussels on 22 March.  The need to maintain an intelligence system to find potential terrorists before they take action and to track them down afterwards was recognised by all the speakers in the debate.

There were several concerns about the Bill one of which was what Andy Burnham called the ‘point of balance’ between security and privacy (column 824).  This was occasioned by the concerns about mass surveillance and the desire to collect and store Internet Connection Records (ICR) for 12 months.  Dominic Grieve – although supportive of the Bill – said that it did not ‘include a clear statement on overarching privacy protections’ (836).

A similar point was made by the SNP MP Joanna Cherry who felt the Bill did not go far enough to ‘protect civil liberties’ (839).  The powers sought went beyond those of other western democracies and she worried that they set a dangerous precedent to Commonwealth countries in particular.

One concern in particular was the clause about economic well-being which could be used against trade unions (862).  In past eras, the security services had been found to use the powers and techniques they then had to frustrate trade union activity.

There was a lot of debate about the difference between ‘content’ data and ‘contact’ data (855).  Many say that the security services are mostly interested in the latter to help them track movements and contacts between criminals, they are less interested in the content which may be encrypted anyway.  David Davis pointed out that two law lords had expressed incredulity because the government had sanctioned illegal surveillance of discussions between a lawyer and his client (864).  This highlighted the issue of trust: that the Bill proposed that the sanctioning of interception would be by a minister and ultimately, can they be trusted?

To what extent are Ministers accountable?  One MP said that attempts to find out information are refused either because it is a criminal matter or, the information was a matter of national security.  Hence the argument was ‘misconceived’ (845).

One of the beliefs behind this activity is that bulk collection will help with finding intelligence.  Evidence from the USA concerning the activities of the NSA (American equivalent of GCHQ) was that the bulk collection of data had not led to the discovery of previously unknown terrorist plots or the disruption of a terrorist attack.  It was initially claimed that 50 such plots had been prevented but once they were examined in detail only one money laundering case was found.  In other words there is a lot of false claiming of success going on.

The notion that ‘the more privacy we sacrifice the more security we gain’ was challenged by more than one speaker (843).  This concept underpinned several speakers in favour of further intrusion citing cases of abducted children and paedophile activity in support of their case.

It was clear throughout the debate that members are struggling with the rapid increase in technology which is increasing the number of ways to communicate and the ability to store and sort vast amounts of data.  As the technology advances, so the issue of privacy and civil liberties comes into play because it is some much easier today to intrude into someone’s life.  The point was made that this intrusion can include digital cameras, games consoles and baby monitors (846).

A lack of clarity with some of the wording is a key issue.  The need for precision of language about what and how much can be intercepted was stressed (843).  Trust is an issue and it is important to remember that the debate may not have happened had it not been for the revelations by Edward Snowden.  We were blissfully ignorant of the sheer extent of the penetration of phones, emails and so forth and the relevant committee knew little of it either.

So the key issues appear to be the bulk collection of data and whether this is advisable or even achievable; the conflict between security and privacy and the control mechanisms to ensure that there is suitable oversight.  Linked to the latter is the issue of trust especially in the light of actions by previous governments for example intruding into Doreen Lawrence’s phone.

After the terrible events in Brussels, there will be an understandable desire for ‘something to be done’.  Had the debate taken place after that outrage then it might have taken on a different tone.  Politicians have to reflect the media and since much of our media is already ill-disposed towards the Human Rights Act, it is understandable that human rights and the free movement of people around Europe would be questioned.  It is more than ever necessary to keep a cool head.  Terrorism is about an attack on values and one of our key values is respect for individuals and the rule of law which includes basic rights enshrined in the HRA.

The Bill moves onto the committee stage and it will be interesting to see how the debate on control and oversight is played out.  Peter Curbishley


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