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Finally, some high-level UK debate on Internet surveillance

Published on
4 Mar 2014

You wait nine months for some UK political debate on the mass Internet surveillance by the National Security Agency and GCHQ revealed by Edward Snowden, then two speeches come along at once… This morning I went to listen to Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader and deputy prime minister, give his first major speech on the issue (there is a summary in the Guardian). It was thoughtful, and went into much more depth than is typical for top-level political debate on these matters. Having given up waiting for their coalition partners, the Lib Dems are proposing some immediate changes: reform of the Intelligence and Security Committee, which should be chaired by an opposition Member of Parliament and hold its meetings in public whenever possible; allowing appeals from the Investigatory Powers Tribunal to the English courts; and publishing an annual government transparency report that gives much greater detail about state access to Internet communications and “metadata”. The deputy prime minister talked at length about the controversial “bulk access” to large amounts of Internet traffic that GCHQ has under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. Unlike most other politicians, and certainly unlike former GCHQ directors I have heard speak on the subject, he argued that such large-scale access is not automatically acceptable so long as there are strict rules within NSA/GCHQ on access to the “collected” data. Collection itself is intrusive (as the European Court of Human Rights has long recognised, in cases such as Leander v Sweden and Amann v Switzerland), and should only happen when necessary and proportionate. Indeed, as President Obama’s review panel said:

“Although we might be safer if the government had ready access to a massive storehouse of information about every detail of our lives, the impact of such a program on the quality of life and on individual freedom would simply be too great. And this is especially true in light of the alternative measures available to the government… We recommend that the US Government should examine the feasibility of creating software that would allow the National Security Agency and other intelligence agencies more easily to conduct targeted information acquisition rather than bulk-data collection.”

Meanwhile yesterday, shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper gave a shorter speech to Demos. She acknowledged the deficiencies of the existing legal regime, and that the Intelligence and Security Committee should be chaired by an opposition MP to give it more credible independence from the government, and given permanent technological expertise. She also said that the Communications Data Bill previously proposed by the government was “far too widely drawn, giving the Home Secretary unprecedented future powers, and with too few checks and balances, and has rightly been stopped.” There seems to be a developing consensus between the two parties. Yvette Cooper has called for much more public debate about Internet surveillance, echoing Nick Clegg’s concern about a loss of public confidence in the intelligence agencies. Both want stronger oversight by converting the existing interception and intelligence commissioners – retired judges  – whose work is largely unknown by the public, into a higher-profile Inspector General. And both recognise that the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act now needs changing, in areas such as stronger safeguards for “metadata”, and looking again at the broad powers given for GCHQ surveillance of “external” communications that start and/or end outside the British Isles (i.e. most Internet communications). The deputy PM has asked the MoD’s external think-tank, the Royal United Services Institute, to convene an Obama-style review panel to report back on these issues after the next election.  By then, as Clegg said, there will be irresistible pressure for Parliament to update the UK legal framework to better reflect the realities of today’s Internet – and perhaps a Labour-Lib Dem coalition that would make this happen. Hopefully those Conservative MPs such as David Davis, who have played a strong role in the public debate so far, will also be able to persuade their colleagues in government of the necessity of reform.