Conservative David Davis MP and the Green Party’s Baroness Jenny Jones, both noted critics of the extent of the state’s surveillance powers, gave evidence before the UK Parliament’s Draft Investigatory Powers Bill Select Committee today. While welcoming some aspects of the draft bill, often referred to as the Snooper’s Charter, they said provisions to protect the public against the intrusive powers of the state are still lacking.
Jones (pictured) said she is concerned that the new laws will be used to spy on the people who are supposed to be holding the authorities to account.
“The majority of powers [in the draft bill] are just covering what has been done up to now,” she said.
“The laws have been broken and abused many times by security agencies and the Met. I’m concerned that they are going to use these powers to spy on people who are actually holding them to account.”
She mentioned the surveillance of Doreen Lawrence, activist and comedian Mark Thomas and her own experience when she was sitting on the Police Authority: “I had a file on me on the Domestic Extremists database.”
Davis said the fact that there is now a single bill covering surveillance powers is an improvement, but said the progress towards accountability is happening in “granny’s footsteps”. He also feared the bill is being rushed through.
“In this business, speed is the enemy of wisdom,” he said.
“We mustn’t miss the opportunity of making this effective, both in protecting our values and also in making the agencies more effective,” he went on, contrasting the secretive British approach with that of the US where the debate is being held much more in the open and where some of the agencies’ powers have been curtailed having been judged ineffective.
Davis and Jones were asked by the committee for their opinions of the bill’s provisions for the bulk interception and acquisition of communications data and also “bulk equipment interference”.
Davis said the bill’s definition of bulk interception is too broad and could include foreign-owned social media sites like Facebook and Twitter – although he said that “tapping a fibre-optic cable between Britain and Pakistan is something I’d be more comfortable with”.
He pointed out that the US has decided that bulk acquisition “simply wasn’t worth it.”
On bulk equipment interference: “Individual targeted interference is obviously a a necessity, it’s one way of going around encryption, but bulk interference worries me a lot. That’s a very serious intrusion of everybody’s privacy,” Davis said – referring to the Gemalto SIM card hack by GCHQ.
“Apart from the direct assault on individuals’ privacy by the state, it would actually undermine their personal integrity to a blackmailer.”
He then mentioned the maintenance of bulk personal datasets by the state, again saying that this approach has been dropped by the US and other allies. He implied that while the previous ID card scheme had been abandoned, the authorities had effectively achieved a central record of citizens by other means, such as combining databases of flights, communications, financial, health and number plate recognition data – although pushed on how he knew he did not answer.
“The problem wasn’t the card, it was the existence of national database of personal data on every citizen. It sounds like we’ve had that since 2005,” Davis said, adding: “This is very intrusive information for a state to hold”.
The new bill requires a judge to sign off on all surveillance warrants – the so-called “double lock”. Both Jones and Davis said this was an improvement, although they had doubts about how it would work in practice. Jones said that a provision to allow judges to look at the legal aspects of a warrant request “is lacking at the moment”. She also noted that in an emergency ministers could forgo this formality.
Davies was troubled by the elements of the bill that claim to hold ministers to account for decisions. “When I ask about these things they say ‘we never comment on intelligence matters’,” he said.
“The accountability argument is a chimera,” he continued. “There were 2,345 warrants last year signed by the Home Secretary. That’s about nine every working day.”
He continued: “The minister has to make a judgement to sign off a warrant on a tiny amount of information. You can’t make a judgement on something as intrusive as this on a precis.”
Rather than warrants being passed to the Home Secretary for sign-off, a panel of judges would be more expert and more experienced and it would be easier to ensure the public interest is maintained, Davis argued, saying that if the proposed double lock system is to be used, it would be better for the judge to see the warrant request first, rather than the minister.
Jones argued that the workload meant that standards would inevitably slip.
“Last year a detective sergeant was found to be authorising intercept warrants. It’s what happens when structures break down. He didn’t even realise that journalists have a duty and a right to protect their sources.”
The two politicians were not entirely critical however. Davis said measures to provide more oversight were welcome.
“The putting together of the overarching commissioners is a very good bit of this bill,” he said.