THE BLOG

The Investigatory Powers Bill Is Unfit for Parliament

13/03/2016 21:25 | Updated 13 March 2016

James Bond has a lot to answer for. He has become the model for how the UK considers the spook world to be - a world of derring do, where baddies are always easily identifiable. In other countries, people are more aware of the risks when things going wrong - Germans remember the Stasi, Americans remember Joe McCarthy and the abuses of the FBI. In the UK, we're fortunate to have people who work in the agencies who are much better than that - for now at least.

There's a long history to state surveillance, going all the way back to Thomas Cromwell, of Wolf Hall fame. However, the levels of intrusion used to be extremely limited, simply because so much effort is needed to intercept and steam open letters, that it could only be done on people who were genuinely under suspicion. These days, with more of our lives being lived online, not only can we collect more information on more people than ever before, but it is far more intrusive. The contents of your phone probably reveal far more about you than any letters you write.

And so we should all be very concerned when the Home Office demands access to much more of our information. The problem isn't about people who are under suspicion of a crime; we can all agree that it is right to monitor such people, with appropriate safeguards. But it's different when it comes to keeping track of every website that we visit regardless of suspicion as proposed in the new Investigatory Powers Bill to be debated in Parliament this week.

Just think what this means for you, or for your friends. A log kept for 12 months of your visit to depressionalliance.com, your search for an abortion provider or that hunt for marriage guidance. Available to be examined by people who don't know you - or perhaps people who do. And just as Ashley Madison lost confidential information about who had signed up to have an affair, and the US government accidentally released information of over 20 million government employees, including names, addresses, and fingerprints, this data could be lost too. Your private moments revealed to the world.

Some will say that this is a price worth paying in order to be safe. But the Home Office have not yet presented evidence that they need to have this information on every single person in the country to make us safer. In fact, what we know from people like Bill Binney, the former technical director of the US National Security Agency, is that overwhelming the agencies with information actually makes us less safe. If you're trying to find a needle in a haystack, you don't throw more hay onto the pile.

We know also that in almost every terrorism case, the criminals were known to the agencies ahead of time. In the case of the brutal murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich, Michael Adebowale was already of such concern that MI5 proposed putting him under intrusive surveillance - but because MI5 and the Home Office didn't get the paperwork done on time, they didn't start that until it was too late. If they had the resources, that murder could have been prevented. No new laws or powers needed.

And the same is true for child abuse cases. The names of 2,345 people in the UK who had bought child abuse images from a supplier in Canada were passed onto our police, who did nothing at all with them for 16 months, allowing some to continue abusing children. They didn't need new laws, they just needed to act on the information they already had.

In the beginning of 2012, I and others were told in private that the Home Office wanted new powers to monitor everyone in the country. We were told it was relatively minor, already written, and could easily be included in another piece of legislation. We said no - and insisted that a draft was published, to be scrutinised in detail. We spent many months examining it, and concluded - unanimously - that it was deeply flawed. We pointed out that the information from the Home Office was misleading, that it went too far, and that they had failed to give any evidence for much of what they claimed.

They then produced another version - which was still not good enough, and so was rejected before it even came to Parliament. Last year, after the pressures from the Snowden revelations, they produced yet another version, which was scrutinised by three parliamentary committees, who all made huge criticisms - but the Home Office in only a couple of weeks rejected almost all the substantive points made, and produced the current bill. In the words of the Government's own Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, David Anderson QC, it is still a work in progress.

I care about security, and I care about privacy. We do need legislation to control state surveillance, and it should allow the state to monitor people suspected of serious wrongdoing, while stopping mass surveillance of the whole population. But it takes time to get it right, and Parliamentarians should show the confidence to reject this version as well, and reject the rushed timetable. The Home Office will have to keep working till it produces something better. A grade of 'B- Must Try Harder' is simply not good enough.

Julian Huppert is the former Lib Dem MP for Cambridge

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