THE BLOG

Westminster Can No Longer Ignore Surveillance Reform

05/03/2014 11:09 GMT | Updated 04/05/2014 10:59 BST

It seems that speeches on surveillance are a bit like buses; you wait an age for one and two come at once. Within twenty four hours of each other, the Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, and the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, have made clear statements highlighting that there is now a broad political consensus that the existing legal surveillance framework has failed to strike the balance between security and privacy.

Following the revelations by Edward Snowden, President Obama was forced into recognising the need for judicial oversight by courts, greater transparency by the Government and for the legal basis of surveillance programmes to be public. As soon as the President made these statements and commissioned an independent review, Britain's politicians' vague statements and refusal to discuss even the most basic details started to look very out-dated indeed.

The only party leader in the UK that has echoed such sentiment is Nick Clegg, who is the first to have publicly said that surveillance law is out of date. In a speech given at RUSI, Clegg acknowledged the fact that the UK is lagging behind the US in seeking to bring laws and practices up to date, stating that the debate in the US "provides an unflattering contrast to the muted debate on this side of the Atlantic".

In her speech on "The Challenges of a Digital World to our Security and Liberty", Yvette Cooper MP took a slightly more muted approach in her speech, although she did too acknowledge that the oversight and legal frameworks are now out of date. It is now essential that Labour set out their policy on what sort of review they will undertake if people are not to see this as a hollow gesture. The speech lacked any specific policy recommendations and was thin on technological specifications; the exact downfalls that have been made in the past in this area.

Both Clegg and Cooper are right to address the fact that the legal framework has not kept pace with technology nor provided for robust oversight. Law has been interpreted to allow far more data to be collected than ever considered by Parliament, while the Commissioners, Investigatory Powers Tribunal and Intelligence and Security Committee have failed to inform the public or Parliament and offered ineffective means of redress. This entire system should be re-drawn, including Inspectors General, the ability to challenge surveillance in court and for far greater transparency about how powers are used, why, and by what organisation.

There is very little to stop Britain making the same inroads that have been made in the US, and we should certainly be aiming to achieve the same standard of oversight and openness to protect civil liberties and our digital economy. Reform must go much further than tinkering with the Intelligence and Security Committee or rearranging the deckchairs currently occupied by invisible Commissioners.

Given these clear concerns, no new surveillance legislation should be created without the important questions about the status quo of surveillance in the UK being answered. A saving grace may be the independent review of "big data" and privacy issues by the Royal United Services Institute, which was announced today by Clegg. However, with several ex-intelligence figures in Fellowship roles with the think tank, the Deputy Prime Minister has a duty to ensure that the panel is both authoritative and independent. The review is also yet supported by either the Conservative or Labour party, which I hope will change sooner rather than later. An ideal scenario for properly addressing the future of surveillance legislation is if a cross-party consensus could be built around the findings of the review, although it won't be published until after the 2015 general election.

The debate around striking the balance between security and privacy may still be in its infancy, with secrecy a well-worn habit when it comes to our security agencies. Yet it is not abundantly clear that if we do not, as the US and other countries now accept is essential, bring our legal framework and oversight mechanisms in line with the expansive surveillance made possible by modern technology, our economy our privacy and our security will all suffer.