The Snooping Bill

[ These are my notes on the talk by Jim Killoch, Executive Director of Open Rights Group, to https://birmingham.openrightsgroup.org/ on 14/10/2015 ]

ORG was set up in 2005. A current concern is ‘The Snooper’s Charter” or https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Draft_Communications_Data_Bill with which the government intend to legitimise digital mass surveillance. The intelligence services have always sought access to personal information about citizens but there were technical opportunities for step-changes in surveillance, first with telephones that could be bugged and then with electronics and the Internet. This has made communication far easier to intercept, reducing costs and reducing need to be so selective. Resources no longer have to be targeted on known or suspected criminals. The ‘Internet of Things’ such as automatic electricty metering and fitness monitors will give new sources of information about our lifestyles and movements.

The ORG has been trying to find what model of threats the security services use. They seem to have escalated to a state where any absence of information is regarded as a threat.

[Since the talk, the Chief Constable of the Metropolitan Police has used the example that when a 14 year old girl went missing, the police could get access to her mobile phone records. Now she is equally likely to communicate by social media or a ‘private’ messaging application; so they ‘need’ fast access to those too. When I was 14, I didn’t have a house phone. I don’t know if the police would have given up or just talked to my friends and the asked who else I knew. This might have been even quicker than applying for a court order or getting a judicial review. The police officer talked on TV news of “dark areas” where they didn’t have access to all information about the young person’s life.]

Jim suggested that technically uninformed government ministers would be asked “Do you want to be the government that…?”, to prevent them trying to block the requests for extra powers. Of course, there are genuine threats to national security but addressing these threats should be balanced with the human right to personal privacy. The ORG is trying to get this side of the argument discussed.

Internationally, the UK co-operates with the intelligence services of other countries. Ministerial warrants are required to target people overseas. Government representatives laughed at suggestions that all data leaving the OK woud be a target but ORG believes this has happened and that it has been denied. The process empoyed has been described as “collecting all the innocent hay to find the guilty needle”. As more compute power becomes available, checking can be automated. This is not seen to be a problem because no human listens to conversation unless there is evidence that causes concern. Until the Bill, all these changes have happened without parliamentary debate, or any other  reference to democratic process. The “If you have nothing to hide…” argument has been used many times but Jim asked if we should only be worried by a law that persecutes us personally. What if it is a government or health service whistle-blower or someone worried about the safety of a nuclear facility? Edward Snowden is a good example.
[The EU has recently offered him safe haven from his persecutors, the US government, having decided his actions were taken for public good. He believed his life and/or liberty were in danger from his own government.]

The government have been talking about banning encryption. Criminals may not be deterred by such a change in the law as they have sophisticated ways of hiding evidence. The government demand for weak encryption allows the same weaknesses to be attacked by criminals. The banking system is entirely dependent on encrytion. Our right to data confidentiality is not legally protected. During the ‘PlebGate’ scandal, police officers were identified by their phone records. Similarly, working police officers, putting pressure on a suspect might look for an attempt to contact a solicitor, increasing their belief in guilt without any further evidence having been discovered.

The law is constructed around the concept of Human Rights but you need privacy to exercise these rights. As parliament tries to legitimise mass surveillance, we need to be confident that legal controls will also be strengthened. The current draft was believed to give police similar access to what GCHQ already has. The more public debate that goes on about this, the better. We need to inform our MPs think they are stopping terrorism because that is how the argument is being put to them. We need to explain that w expect them to defend our rights, as well as our ‘security’. There is a serious disjoint between UK an EU law. The EU courts do not think mass surveillance is OK. They demand reasons for monitoring. This is causing a big row and the EU is striking out UK laws. [Is it a coincidence that the government is trying to discredit EU Human Rights law?]

The UK has been keeping all phone records for 12 months, in case any of us break the law. This is not proportionate to the threat. Why are they spending so much money watching people they have no reasons to suspect?

Our intelligence service works with the US. Under ‘Safe harbour’ rules, you have less right to privacy if you are not a US citizen. We need to remind our politicians and secret services that they work for us. Tom Watson and David Davis have campaigned to get the laws changed. Tom Watson may have more influence in his new role as Deputy Leader of the Labour Party but may have to be less vocal for party unity. There tends to be consensus politics between the parties on defence issues but there may be more of a debate this time and we should all encourage that by communicating the issues by contacting our newspapers, our MP and our friends.

[ My observation of press coverage so far is:
Most of the press are supportive of the Conservative Party, who are currently ignoring traditional conservative values of liberty and personal freedom. Their current emphasis is on security and defence against terrorists. If that can be conflated with all foreigners and the EU then so much the better.

Even The Guardian has started to attack Labour since its members elected Jeremy Corbyn as Leader. They want him to fail and believe he is weak on pacifism and his anti-Trident stance, so are unlikely to attack Cameron on ‘Defence’. Anyone speaking up for us is likely to come from the far-Left, the Libertarian Right or the Centre and be completely ignored by the press, so it’s up to us ]

The next @OpenRightsBrum meeting is this Wednesday at BOM:
http://www.meetup.com/ORG-Birmingham/events/226325239/ on the subject:
“After TalkTalk, should government re-think storing citizens’ internet records?”

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