United Kingdom of surveillance

Despite strongly opposing a similar measure when the then Labour government introduced it in 2009, the Conservatives and Liberals who rule Britain today have now proposed their snooper’s charter.

The Communications Data Bill has provoked fierce criticism across the political spectrum. Under it, the intelligence services and police will have access, without warrants, to all text messages, phone calls, emails, and internet connections. Internet users, visitors to social networking sites, and telephone users will all be subject to interception or supervision, or both, any or all of the time.

Officials will be able to seek court injunctions against British internet and telephone companies which fail to comply, and the government has gone even further than Labour by planning to pay overseas-based firms like Facebook and Twitter to hand over information on web and mobile phone use.

The Bill, however, is riddled with problems. Even an official impact assessment states that significant risks to privacy are involved. Secondly, it has not been clarified what additional threat needs to be addressed, not least because the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 already gives the police and other bodies vast powers; they have made over 550,000 interception requests a year. The 2000 Act, furthermore, is so comprehensive that the courts have had to stop municipal bodies from engaging in total surveillance.

Thirdly, British ministers now routinely evade parliamentary scrutiny by using delegated powers to make legislation of primary importance, and can create even more repressive powers after the law is on the statute books. Judicial review is also time-barred, and the British judiciary is usually reluctant to oppose the executive when the latter cites national security. In addition, the proposed law only calls for voluntary cooperation by non-U.K. firms, but the £6 billion the new policy could cost the cash-strapped U.K. government dwarfs the sums respectively spent even by China and Qadhafi’s Libya on IT surveillance. Above all, the law could be useless, as those determined to evade detection could use proxy servers or fake IDs.

The British upper chamber, the House of Lords, severely criticised such measures in 2009, but without a major parliamentary rebellion the plan will become law. There could be few better examples of the increasing grip of the security services on the executive. The presumption that all human beings are potentially suspect is tantamount to governance by a doctrine of Original Sin.



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