Deception about plans to extend surveillance amounts to an abuse of power
The snooper’s law proves government can’t be trusted
Tuesday June 18, 2002
(c) The Guardian
Whether Tony Blair is worth trusting is a personal judgment. We can all have our opinions. Look into his eyes, study his body language, gawp at his sortie to the press complaints commission, measure the density of his apologia for what did or did not happen round the Queen Mother’s catafalque, and you may decide against him. Contemplate his enemies, think about their motives, reflect upon the obsessive malignity of their campaign, stare blank-eyed at the self-righteous hyperbole with which they pronounce that he will never be believed again, and you may come to a different view – if you care enough to get into this stuff at all.
Personal assessments will doubtless reflect some prior prejudice. And because they’re ultimately unverifiable, they attract thousands on thousands of words. There’s an inverse ratio between journalistic output and evidential proof. The issue is as elusive as the passion is intense and the objectivity resonantly absent. Does this one man, Prime Minister Blair, deserve our trust? There will be no final answer, just as there never was with Margaret Thatcher, or John Major, or any other leader.
Government, on the other hand, is something else. It is never to be trusted. Here, there is a final answer. Not that government is always bad or wrong. It is essential to the good of mankind. But in the matter of power, government absolutely never deserves our unquestioning reliance. Its use of power demands eternal vigilance. Yet perhaps because this is so tediously so – so lacking in novelty, so unamenable to prurient speculation – its truth is neglected. Contrast the passions about our leader’s disputed follies, and the bored indifference directed to an outrage now being committed by the machine of which he is temporarily in charge.
Next Monday there will be a last chance for MPs to stop this abomination. The story began two years ago, when the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) passed into law. It was a complicated measure, essentially addressing the outgrowth of electronic data and the need to both enable and control the use of such data by government. It was about sharing and disclosing, and the thrust of it was about crime and national security, along with tax evasion. The branches of the public service listed as authorised to make demands on relevant internet providers and users were exclusively the police, the military, the intelligence services and the inland revenue.
Even before September 11 showed us how this kind of data might be legitimate and useful for the protection of society, Ripa had taken its place in a growing body of such extensions of government power. Hardly a terrorism atrocity could take place anywhere without the British governing machine seizing its moment for emergency legislation. Collecting more and more information became part of the official response to such crisis, regularly approved by parliament. Its justifica tions seeped into the economic as well as security area. Just about anything harmful to any kind of national interest provided a pretext for official data collection.
Then came September 11. The security machine – ie government, one might say, rather than this government uniquely and as such – grew greedier. Last winter’s anti-terrorism bill, among other things, entered the same information warehouse as Ripa, demanding that more should be made available, for a range of purposes which, but for the vigilance of a handful of Lib Dem peers, would have extended even further. As a pair of measures, Ripa and the latest anti-terrorism act legitimise the official capture of private communications – not their content, but every other telling detail electronically available by piecing them together – more copiously than in any other democratic regime in the world.
All this is a done deal, passed by parliament, and it is bad enough. Challenged to defend it, the representatives of the machine – pro tem known as Labour ministers – trot out familiar claims. It was all entirely benign and above board, Bob Ainsworth, Home Office minister, wrote in the Guardian last week: there would be no “fishing expeditions”. Moreover, the system would be regulated. The interception of communications commissioner was in charge of the public interest, and would see it defended: a promise that might be more credible were it not for the disclosure by a parliamentary committee in March 2001 that the commissioner, Lord Justice Swinton Thomas, with a two-strong office, “did not even have enough staff to open the mail”.
Now, though, the story gets worse. Unless parliament vetoes the relevant executive order on Monday, a story broken by the Guardian last week will come to pass. A panoply of new public authorities will be vested with the powers that Ripa confines to police, military, intelligence and tax officials. There are 24 new categories, one of which includes every local authority. Everything from the Health Department to the food standards agency will be given the power to snoop, with only Swinton Thomas to check them: tens of millions of privacy invasions, potentially, invigilated by an office of three people, with the subjects of the snooping left in ignorance.
Trust is the right neuralgic word to raise here. There are several breaches of it. One was the calculated failure to list all these public authorities when Ripa was struggling through the Lords. Controversial already, the bill might have been judged insupportable if ministers revealed that the health and safety executive were to get the same powers as MI6. Plainly the machine’s full intentions were held back as a piece of crude political calculation which parliament could do nothing about. This was a conventional, but still confidence-sapping, abuse of power.
Second, when the question was raised with Patricia Hewitt – on the Guardian website, during the election – she denied three times that a new law would be passed compelling service providers to log and retain for up to seven years all data on email addresses and websites browsed, which is in effect what the anti-terrorism act and the extension of Ripa provide for. Confronted with this u-turn, the machine says that September 11 changed everything. That is an irrelevant distraction. The authorities that are about to be given power to call on such data have little, more usually nothing, to do with terrorism.
Third, where is this to lead? A natural ambition of the machine is to have access to all information about every citizen, which electronic storage makes possible if the right legislative framework is provided. The extended Ripa helps make that framework. This prospect seems rather more central – more revolutionary, bold and sinister – to the life of Britain than the question of whether we see Alastair Campbell as a bigger liar than the editor of the Daily Mail. Yet the same level of indignation somehow eludes it. Raging at the leader, we miss the elephant, on which he is but a passing gnat.