David Anderson QC, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation commissioned by Cameron, has just produced a 373 page report, ‘A Question of Trust’, which, partially at least, restored the fundamental principle of a free society into the toxic atmosphere of MI5/GCHQ’s (and the government’s) obsessive desire to introduce a snoopers’ charter in which the whole population is potentially targeted for algorithmic monitoring, with all the abuse, error and hacking that that entails. He rightly condemns the current Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) as “incomprehensible, undemocratic, unnecessary and intolerable”. But his central proposal is to shift oversight of the surveillance process from the Home Secretary to a new independent body and in particular to pass the power to authorise surveillance away from government to a panel of senior judges. This is long overdue and should be strongly supported.
The arguments against almost unchecked mass surveillance are overwhelming. In all the recent cases of UK terrorist bombings and killings, the perpetrators were already known to the security services, who culpably failed to keep track of them or to arrest them. So there is no recent evidence to justify introducing mass surveillance, rather the need for the security services to be more alert and a lot sharper. Second, privacy, despite Silicon Valley’s claim that it is now dead, has an essential role in guarding human identity, dignity, and independence, and mass surveillance runs clean counter to this. Third, no other civilised country allows Ministers control over the mechanisms of mass surveillance. The EU have amended their surveillance regimes following a judgement in the European Court, and even in the US there has been cross-party agreement to ban it as being unconstitutional.
It is however sad that even a libertarian like Anderson still, at the end of his report, supports the bulk collection of data by the security agencies. This is such a prize item for Theresa May, who has touted the need for a snoopers’ charter at every opportunity presented by terrorist action anywhere, in the face of all the evidence to the contrary, that one wonders if he was nobbled. For there is no limit the spooks won’t go to to get their way. Most recently they have put around the claim that Russia and China have broken into the secret cache of Snowden’s files and that British agents have had to be withdrawn from live operations as a result. This story is riddled with highly unquestionable and unlikely implications that it is widely seen as yet another device to blacken Snowden and pave the way for the mass snooping charter they will sink to any dirty tricks to get their hands on. They must be stopped by a cross-party alliance when the government presents its bill in the autumn, and I believe they will be.