The conference was held in the shadow of the Guardian and Washington Post’s scoop that the NSA are accessing all foreigner’s uses of the major social networking sites, which are all, err…, US owned and based. As one speaker quipped, “Did we organise this, as a marketing scheme?”
So immediately after Tim Wu’s speech I went to a session called “Snooper’s Charter: What’s the situation now?” dealing with the UK Government’s attempts to give themselves exactly the powers taken by the US Government. This involved three of the authors of the ORG’s Digital Surveillance Report, Peter Sommer, Duncan Campbell and Bendert Zevenbergen. They were joined by Julian Huppert MP, a Lib Dem and a member of the pre-legislative Joint Parliamentary Committee which scrutinised the draft legislation. Peter Sommer spoke of the coming of surveillance to the UK. He quoted the Elizabethan secret police but more realistically started his story from 1985, when phone tapping was first legalised, albeit in a way that meant that such intercepts were not admissible in court. He travelled via PACE, the original Data Protection Act, RIPA and the EU Data Retention Directives. It is recognised there are still things that Law Enforcement can’t get or use and this includes webmail, and social media content and VOIP. Some IP addresses can’t be resolved to an identity, and not just because IP addresses belong to devices not people, and they can’t obtain information from non UK based CSPs. However, the UK is in the unfortunate but planned position that information gathering and surveillance is
- Authorised by Politicians and
- Performed by the Police
If it was Iran, China or Zimbabwe, we’d draw different conclusions. Because we’re the good guys isn’t a good enough reason.
Duncan Campbell, the famous investigative journalist spoke next, he wrote the Digital Surveillance Report chapter on the History of (British) State Surveillance and among other things placed the beginning of modern surveillance back to the Official Secrets Act in the 1920’s and said,
“Secrecy is the hand maiden of (failing) checks and balances”
Who can watch the spies, if they lie or deceive their democratic oversight?
The specific quote reminds me of the Ponting affair (1984), and it’s right to do so; Government Ministers lied to Parliament about the location and direction of travel of the Argentine Cruiser, the General Belgrano, and were grassed up by a civil service whistle blower, who was prosecuted and acquitted under the Official Secrets act despite the Judge’s summing up that the last word on national security interest is the Governments. His defence was one of public interest and parliamentary privilege since he leaked the material to an MP, Tam Dalyell. As I said, he was acquitted.
The next speaker was Julian Huppert MP, master self-publicist and Lib Dem MP for Cambridge.
He made a couple of points,
- A significant problem is parliamentary and civil service ignorance about the internet.
- He lauded the pre-legislative joint committee’s robust rejection of the Communications Data Bill, in their unanimous report. The report concluded,
“….the current draft Bill is too sweeping, and goes further than it need or should. We believe that, with the benefit of fuller consultation with CSPs than has so far taken place, the Government will be able to devise a more proportionate measure than the present draft Bill, which would achieve most of what they really need, would encroach less upon privacy, would be more acceptable to the CSPs, and would cost the taxpayer less.”
Not exactly excoriating, but if that’s what unanimity takes, and it was enough for the Liberal Democrats to kill it in Government. Huppert promised it won’t get Government time under this Government, and neither the opposition owned time, nor the private member’s route have sufficient time to pass such a bill.
Huppert stated that his two drop dead criteria are,
- Asking UK Org’s [CSP/ISPs] to monitor UK citizens and presumably, non citizens located in the UK when using systems located abroad, mainly in the US.
- Recording, retaining and mining people’s web history
I would add that we need judicial review for the release and use of specific data, a point made by Labour’s Katy Clark MP when speaking to the ORG meeting at Labour Party conference last year, which I reported on here. Our citizen protections under RIPA are not enough.
Obviously all of us arguing for judicial oversight need to be a lot cleverer now that the US NSA’s PRISM program has been exposed. Nation states are allowing each other to spy on foreign nationals and are swapping data with each other. Those states with legal constraints and the will to conform to their laws are outsourcing the spying on their innocent citizens to other states. The key question to ask of the Government isn’t did GCHQ obey the law, but did they receive information from the US that they were prohibited from collecting under UK Law, and for which there was no warrant.
Two questions were asked from the floor at the end of the session. One person asked if the CDB was an attempt to legalise general monitoring before the NSA’s programmes were leaked, to legalise the acquisition and use of NSA discovered data and the second questioner asked if Microsoft had been encouraged to buy Skype to enclose it within the surveillance family of the US Government.
On the subject of the will to conform. – We have to ask what the US think their doing? They invented no search without a warrant, established it in their 4th amendment and are now breaking it with impunity, they certainly do not extend citizen’s rights to non citizens, and also are definitely denying these rights to citizens located abroad; we’ll see shortly, how they respect the rights of citizens within the US, but the Verizon story suggest not much.
If you like this you might like to read the following article on this blog,
- Citizens not Suspects
- They won’t snoop if you’ve nothing to hide
- A free digital society with Richard Stallman
This was written between the date of the conference, 8th and 13th June, it was back dated to the time of occurrence.