Friday, April 17, 2015

Eliciting prospective parliamentary candidates' positions on surveillance

The Don't Spy on Us coalition have put together a prospective parliamentary candidate enlightenment programme on mass surveillance. I used the form to email those touting for election in my area to ask where they stand on surveillance.  It is a marginal seat, usually going to Lib Dems or Tories.

Conservative, Nicola Blackwood, edged it by less than a couple of hundred votes in 2010 and I have a fair idea of her perspective, having semi-routinely corresponded with her on the matter, which is largely one of towing the Tory party line.

The Don't Spy on Us email is relatively short and simple.
"I am concerned about the current internet surveillance regime in the UK and would like to see my parliamentary candidates support these changes to the existing system:

1. to ensure that surveillance powers are targeted, necessary and proportionate
2. to increase judicial authorisation over surveillance
3. to improve oversight of the intelligence agencies

Please also read this briefing from the Don't Spy On Us coalition for parliamentary candidates.

Yours sincerely

Ray Corrigan"
Interestingly, I had a response from the Labour candidate, Sally Copely, within 16 minutes. Unfortunately, it was non-committal and looks to have been partly cut and pasted from party briefings.
"Dear Mr Corrigan

Many thanks for your email.

I am also concerned by this, as security agencies are supposed to have only limited access to communications, with oversight by the courts. I do understand that there is an issue with growing numbers of terrorists communicating via the internet, rather than on the telephone, and that the authorities need to be able to keep up with changing technologies.  But while the police and security agencies need stronger powers, Labour believe these must be backed by stronger safeguards.

That is why we pushed for David Anderson’s independent review of the legal framework surrounding surveillance, which will complete just before the election. So we are committed to giving David Anderson the time and space to look at these issues and report back.  More should be here soon: Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation «

I've responded to her further.
"Thanks for the rapid response, Sally.

If you speak to ordinary police and intelligence officers they don’t want stronger powers or more money thrown at supposedly magic terrorist catching computer systems, managed through complex bureaucracies primarily designed to demonstrate management are meeting their targets. They need more appropriately trained and experienced people. The intelligence services currently have the power and capability to data mine the intimate details of the lives of anyone in entire population. They are completely swamped with gigantic quantities of electronic data. They simply don’t have the personnel to track everyone to that degree; not just ordinary people but known dangerous suspects, as we discovered when the close surveillance of Fusilier Lee Rigby’s killers was lifted shortly before the murder.

Yet the three dominant parties, as I understand it, are committed to continuing to cut the number of police officers. Labour and the Tories are committed to expanding mass surveillance powers e.g. through the implementation of the proposed and discredited Communications Data Bill. All three main parties supported the unscrutinised hasty scrambling of the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (DRIPA) through Parliament just prior to MPs’ summer holidays in 2014. Not only did DRIPA re-introduce and expand the data retention practices that the European Court of Justice had, just months previously, declared so heinous that they should never have existed, it extended the territorial reach of UK surveillance law to cover the entire world. Additionally it essentially declares anyone with any gadget connected to the internet is now fair game for surveillance. DRIPA is quite short (only 8 sections) and actually well worth reading – most MPs still have not done so.

David Anderson’s review will be significant but I think you’ll find Mr Anderson is already on record as noting the importance of surveillance powers that are targeted, necessary and proportionate, improved oversight of the intelligence agencies and judicial authorisation of surveillance. I don’t believe it is unreasonable to ask the same commitment from prospective parliamentary candidates. I’m afraid I’ll need something stronger than the non-committal party line and a request to ‘pick me to avoid them’ treatise to consider voting for Labour. :-)

The default deterministic construction and deployment of a regulatory and communications infrastructure of mass surveillance is one of the fundamental issues of the information age. That all the main parties have sought to ignore it as an election issue is unfortunate but doesn’t make it any less important. I’d encourage you to consult your colleagues, Tom Watson and David Winnick, who are amongst the very few Labour MPs who have done any serious degree of thinking on these matters.



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