THE BLOG
26/06/2015 13:42 BST | Updated 26/06/2016 06:59 BST

We Have a Chance to Secure Real Reform of Our Spying Laws

With the much-touted Investigatory Powers Bill looming - it's in the Government's interest to make this black and white: either you believe in stopping terrorism and serious crime or you believe in the fundamental right to privacy. One or the other, you can't have both.

On Wednesday, the Evening Standard ran a story about the Metropolitan Police's use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, or RIPA - the law governing surveillance by the State. Scotland Yard, it was revealed, makes more than 120 requests a day to access data about calls, texts and emails in order to trace missing people and investigate serious crime. The story claimed the new figures would "alarm privacy campaigners" - although, peculiarly, didn't actually quote any.

Among other things, Liberty campaigns to defend the right to privacy enshrined in our Human Rights Act. But we support the vital role of surveillance in finding vulnerable people, preventing and detecting serious crime, securing convictions and acquitting the innocent.

This is an example of how the important debate over surveillance is increasingly characterised in the press, and often in Parliament: an unhelpful and misleading polarisation which pits privacy directly against security, and campaigners against the spies.

But that dichotomy simply isn't real. Liberty and many other campaigners have no issue with the use of intrusive powers per se. Targeted surveillance can be crucial in preventing serious crime - but we do not believe that the useful role of communications data in investigating crime justifies the blanket retention of the data of every man, woman and child in the UK.

Compare the targeted use of communications data mentioned in the Standard with successive attempts by Government to introduce some form of Snoopers' Charter, mandating the storage of huge amounts of additional information about the web habits of the whole population. These proposals were defeated most recently in 2012, when a cross-party committee of Parliamentarians found the Government had not made the case for such wide and sweeping powers.

Post-General Election, it seemed the plan was to revive these discredited proposals in the form of an Investigatory Powers Bill which would force UK service providers to collect the weblogs of their customers in addition to information about their web activity on sites based overseas, such as Facebook and Twitter.

Unfortunately for the Home Secretary, David Anderson QC - the Government's Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation - was less than supportive of the plans in his major report released earlier this month. He said no operational case had been made for the Snoopers' Charter and questioned its lawfulness, intrusiveness and potential cost. As the Reviewer emphasised, no other EU or Commonwealth country requires the blanket retention of weblogs, and Australia recently prohibited it in law. It is, however, far from clear that the Government will heed these warnings: Theresa May yesterday refused to rule out including Snoopers' Charter powers in a draft Bill due in the autumn.

With the publication of David Anderson's comprehensive and thoughtful report comes an opportunity to consider the question of state surveillance more broadly. The Snowden leaks, and subsequent legal challenges by Liberty and others, show just how far we've moved from targeted surveillance. In some of the rare instances in which spying has come to light, the inadequacy of our surveillance laws has been laid bare. In recent years, Met Police have circumvented safeguards to access journalists' phone records, spied on Baroness Doreen Lawrence and her family, and infiltrated social and environmental justice groups to the extent that women were tricked into long-term romantic relationships - one even having a child with an undercover officer.

Over the same period, legal challenges have revealed that GCHQ has intercepted legally privileged communications, used malware to hack into private communications passing over a Belgian telecoms network and spied on respected human rights organisations in South Africa and Egypt. What kind of signal are British authorities sending to despotic regimes all over the world?

No wonder, then, that David Anderson described the current legal framework for surveillance as "undemocratic, unnecessary and - in the long run - intolerable", and called for a comprehensive new law that can be properly understood by people and parliamentarians. He argued the new law should comply with international human rights standards and require prior judicial authorisation for all interception warrants and some communications data requests - something which Liberty has campaigned for more than a decade.

Within days, Number 10 signalled it wasn't too keen on some of Mr Anderson's key recommendations, particularly the call for judicial warrants. Yesterday's Commons debate on the report seemed to confirm that: while Labour, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats and Conservative MP and former Attorney General Dominic Grieve all voiced support for judicial authorisation - many pointing out that all comparable democracies already have such a system - the Home Secretary refused to endorse it. All signs point to business as usual at the Home Office, even in light of this insightful review.

David Anderson's report has brought some much-needed nuance to the surveillance debate - a debate that affects every single one of us. But - with the much-touted Investigatory Powers Bill looming - it's in the Government's interest to make this black and white: either you believe in stopping terrorism and serious crime or you believe in the fundamental right to privacy. One or the other, you can't have both.

There's no such thing as a risk-free society, and it is too much to expect of the agencies or the law to deliver it. But in the coming months we have a chance to secure real reform of our spying laws to make sure we have effective, targeted surveillance that keeps us safe and safeguards the British public's privacy and dignity. We must not let that chance slip away.