The intelligence and security committee, set up by prime minister David Cameron to scrutinise new investigatory law, has said that home secretary Theresa May’s draft “snooper’s charter” bill “fails to cover all the intrusive spying powers of the security agencies and lacks clarity in its privacy protections.”
The unexpectedly critical intervention by the intelligence and security committee comes just days before a key scrutiny committee of MPs and peers is to deliver its verdict on the draft legislation aimed at regulating the surveillance powers of the security agencies.
Central to the committee’s complaint is the fact that privacy is an add-on to the bill, rather than being an integral backbone of the proposed legislation.
The ISC said in its report that it supported the government’s intention to provide greater transparency around the security services’ intrusive powers in the aftermath of the Edward Snowden mass surveillance disclosures.
“It is nevertheless disappointing that the draft bill does not cover all the agencies’ intrusive capabilities – as the committee recommended last year,” said Dominic Grieve, former Conservative attorney general and chair of the committee.
The committee had expected to find that privacy would form an integral part of the bill, around which the legislation would be built. But instead it seems that privacy concerns are an afterthought, and the legislation is not at all transparent in this regard.
“Given the background to the draft bill and the public concern over the allegations made by Edward Snowden in 2013, it is surprising that the protection of people’s privacy – which is enshrined in other legislation – does not feature more prominently,” said the committee, which also proposed three amendments to the bill:
- On “equipment interference” or computer hacking powers, the ISC said the bill only covered the use of these powers to gather intelligence and did not regulate their use for attack purposes.
- On “bulk personal datasets” – data bought or obtained from other bodies – it said these included personal information about a large number of individuals that was sufficiently intrusive to require a specific warrant. The bill’s provision for “class bulk dataset warrants” should therefore be deleted.
- On “communications data”, it said the government’s approach was inconsistent and confusing and clear safeguards needed to be set out on the face of the bill.
“We consider these changes necessary if the government is to bring forward legislation which provides the security and intelligence agencies with the investigatory powers they require, while protecting our privacy through robust safeguards and controls,” Dominic Grieve said.
I believe that any future legislation should ensure that proper warrants from judges are required before investigators can begin retrieving personal data. There may be occasions when urgency demands authorization from the home secretary; but in general permission should be sought from a judge, not a politician; and there should be real evidence to prove that intrusion into privacy is needed. This seems to me a no-brainer: just as the police need a warrant before they can search private premises, so investigators should need a warrant before rooting through an individual’s private data and communications.
It seems that the government wants enshrined in law the illegal powers the intelligence and security services were found to use thanks to NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden’s revelations. For instance, GCHQ, with its TEMPORA program, has been sifting through the private communications that pass through the underwater cables between Britain and the USA. Such bulk collection of data should not be allowed. If the security services believe that an individual is communicating data about unlawful plots, they should present a judge with their evidence and the judge can then decide if data collection is called for. The idea of allowing Theresa May to micro-manage cases is ludicrous: she is not in a position to make judgement calls of this nature while also carrying out her other duties. The result of the proposed bill would be the home secretary signing off on cases she knows nothing about: basically giving the police and intelligence and security agencies a blank cheque.
Invasion of privacy is a serious matter, and a citizen’s right to privacy should be breached only if there is a good reason. A judge would be better placed to make this call than a politician in London who has neither the time nor resources to check each case on its merits. When agencies are given carte blanche to do whatever they want, history indicates that they go too far. They need to be reigned in.