This evening I will be putting a resolution to my local Labour party that any legislation such as Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (“DRIP”) should always be subject to proper parliamentary scrutiny and debate. Whilst I accept that surveillance can be a vital tool in tackling terrorism and crime it should not be used indiscriminately. Surveillance needs to be more accountable if it is to maintain public confidence. One step to attain such accountability would be to require surveillance to be legally authorised by a judge.
I was dumbfounded by the lack of transparency and debate that accompanied this legislation which was rushed from announcement to enshrinement in 8 days, or roughly half the time it takes to circumnavigate Eric Pickles. There is staggering arrogance in a bill that places private individuals under greater scrutiny being passed through parliament with none. The fact that this bill requires some level of technical expertise has been ignored in this ‘emergency’.
The government’s definition of emergency would lead to constant hysteria if generally applied anywhere else in life. There was no pressing need identified that made this an emergency. The government has known since April that the European Court of Justice had rejected mass data collection as incompatible with our right to a private life and the protection of personal data.
In part DRIP serves as a legal fig-leaf for corporate entities that are already complying with intercept warrants for much of the information requested by government (see here for fuller explanation: http://jackofkent.com/2014/07/why-drip-matters/). Indeed, it seems that the legal departments of e-mail providers are being given more weight than the individuals who are to be the subjects of this surveillance.
The right to privacy is a qualified right and can be limited in the interests of national security or the prevention of crime. However, the balance is one that requires careful monitoring. The fallacy of the argument that I have nothing to hide and so I have nothing to fear is that it always accords primacy to other interests than the right to privacy.
The nothing to hide argument is false in several ways. For example, we have often seen the potential for abuse or misuse of surveillance powers. Doreen Lawrence and the De Menezes family had nothing to hide – does that make their being spied on harmless or acceptable? Others to have been subjected to unwarranted intrusion in their private life have been powerful organisations such as Amnesty International, charities like UNICEF, unions, and prominent individuals in the Labour Party like the Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan. If those with power can be so abused we need to think of how it could impact those with none.
All these abuses occurred under what I would consider relatively benign governments. It does not take an enormous leap of imagination to consider less benign forces abusing these powers. A government pursuing a more aggressive stance against trade unions, political activists and charities is not hard to contemplate. We have seen this government criticise charities such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Oxfam for having the gumption to highlight some of the consequences of their iniquitous policies.
Data abuse need not even arise from malign intent. We have seen cases of poor data handling resulting in wrongful arrest, such as Khaled El Masri. (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/dec/13/european-court-human-rights-cia-abuse-khaled-elmasri) It seems plausible to me that the more ubiquitous the data the more likely it is that these errors will occur.
There is also the obvious potential for this information to spread beyond the confines of government, either through memory sticks being left in the pub, or the government selling “anonymised” data.
In order to play to the nothing to hide crowd the government has called upon the perennial bogeymen of terrorism and paedophilia to stifle debate. The impending paedogeddon is yet again being used to keep unruly civil libertarians in line. This red-top thinking must be avoided in government. Anything that fundamentally disrupts the balance between the individual’s right to privacy and national security must be very carefully examined and the onus must surely fall on the state to demonstrate why further impingements of our liberty are necessary. This has assuredly not happened with DRIP.