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The snoopers’ charter raises its ugly head again

big-brother-1984Bang on cue, Cameron this week reiterated what Andrew Parker, head of MI5, had demanded just before, that in the light of the Paris killings the UK security services needed more surveillance powers. Whenever there is a terrorist incident MI5 never misses an opportunity to demand ‘more resources’, closely followed in tandem by Cameron and May. Nobody of course would wish to deny the security services the funding and powers they need to target terrorists, but there are genuine questions to be asked as to how far extra powers are needed, especially if it is in the blanket form of mass surveillance.

First, it is now known that the Kouachi brothers were part of a network that was being watched from as long ago as 2005; indeed the elder brother had already served a prison sentence. Similarly the Woolwich killers of Lee Rigby were already known to M15, as were the Boston bomber in the US and the Sydney killer in Australia a few months ago. The authorities already had all the powers they needed to keep track of these terrorist suspects; all they lacked (or miscalculated on) was the moment when they might act.

Second, why do the intelligence agencies need such bulk data for indiscriminate surveillance when they can’t even process the information they already have about existing targets? They are asking for legislation to make it easier to access the data held by the internet and telecom companies, not just phone records but chat lines. Malcolm Rifkind, the chair of the flawed parliamentary intelligence and security committee, uncritically repeated Parker’s demand for increased powers as though the Snowden revelations had never occurred.

Third, Cameron’s commitment to a revised snoopers’ charter (or more formally the communications data bill) would require the internet and phone companies, particularly Google and Facebook, to store all communications data that tracks users’ web and phone use, including browsing histories, emails and texts. GCHQ’s Tempora programme was revealed by Snowden to have the capacity to spill up all communications data crossing the Atlantic, but it can hold it for only 30 days, not the 12 months now being proposed by Cameron. The new legislation is also expected to introduce a ‘request filter’ which would enable the police and security services to search the mountain of personal data held by the internet companies. That is where the real privacy dangers lie.

Fourth, while communications data is admissible in court, warranted intercept evidence by which agencies snoop on the content of calls and emails is not. The problem for the security services is that the legal framework now lags far behind their technical capacity to undertake web surveillance – a capacity which no doubt they have already long put to use – and the purpose of the proposed new legislation is to provide legal cover to legitimise what they are already doing, though without the proper democratic oversight so desperately needed.

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