Personal privacy in the UK was put on notice last week as the government tabled its new Investigatory Powers Bill.
The draft document, which runs to a whopping 299 pages, contains a number of far-reaching measures that will put citizens under unprecedented levels of state surveillance.
The Bill preface reads “The provisions …. seek to protect both privacy and security by improving transparency and through radical changes to the way investigatory powers are authorised and overseen”. They do nothing of the sort.
The most controversial proposal is a requirement for providers to store everyone’s internet activity for a year. This information will be accessible to police and intelligence officers without the need for a warrant.
The government claim that safeguards will stop official examination of the full content of people's web use. Critics however point out that the massive piece of legislation includes several vague sections which could allow wide interpretation.
One such fuzzy area is Section 189 of the law which enables the Government to impose “obligations” on companies that provide telecommunications services. That can include “the removal of electronic protection” - which could ban the use of encryption on direct messaging services.
The key question which keeps cropping up is how much trust can be placed in the government and its agencies to keep within set boundaries.
Their record is not great. For example, the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 requires all DNA samples to be destroyed within 6 months of being taken. Yet evidence provided by civil rights groups shows how regulations are habitually breached either through laxness or deliberate policy.
Even if monitoring powers are expanded – and it looks very likely – this does not mean police and security forces will be more effective as a result. At least that has been the experience in France where state surveillance laws are already far more extensive.
Police chiefs here already complain about under-resourcing. As Home Secretary Teresa May announced the measures at the dispatch box, six police and crime commissioners were threatening the Home Office with legal action over how police forces are funded.
Giving up some freedoms to defend others is not a new dilemma. A certain revolutionary by the name of Benjamin Franklin once said: "Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."
The quote is often repeated as an argument in favour of protecting civil liberties, although Franklin was actually having a pop at the wealthy Penn family for trying to avoid state taxation that would be used to fund defence measures.
He needn’t be worried today. The new bill enables the taxman, councils and host of public bodies to all sift through your internet searches. Indeed, a total of thirty-eight bodies will be entitled to access records for the purpose of "detecting or preventing crime".
Ironically, the draft legislation signally fails to guarantee investigative journalists a strong right to protect their confidential sources of information.
Big Brother will never have had it so good.
Through the looking glass
‘Transparency’ is one of those words that mean different things depending on the circumstances. Clearly this is the case in Cardiff Bay.
The Welsh government has recently come under fire for ending the publication of ministerial ‘Decision Reports’. These gave a detailed account of what day-to-day decisions had been made by ministers and the facts taken into account.
Publication was discontinued in September on the grounds of streamlining plus the assertion that no-one read the reports anyway.
This action drove opposition politicians and pundits to claim that transparency has been treated as a "tick-box exercise". The media then loudly joined in – despite most of them being patently unaware the practice existed prior to being dropped.
Having waded through a few decision reports myself, I can understand why they were thought to only have limited value. Nonetheless, it’s an odd move by an institution that otherwise prides itself on being so open.
Tomorrow marks Armistice Day. The cessation of hostilities after the first global conflict and what many sincerely hoped would be the war to end wars.
I remember having a pub conversation about that misconception with a college friend. A few months later he quit the course to join the army. He’d applied for the Royal Engineers but opted instead for the infantry.
I last saw him as he was getting off a bus while I was getting on. We waved and shouted to each other that we’d meet up for a drink. It never happened.
He was shot by a sniper while on patrol less than a week after arriving in Londonderry. He died week later from his wounds.
I’ve never been to the spot where it happened but when I stand silent at 11am tomorrow, I will remember him as I have done for the last forty years. We may get older but we must never forget.