Friday, April 17, 2015

Another response on surveillance from a prospective MP

I've now had a response from Lib Dem general election candidate, Layla Moran, to my Don't Spy on Us email.
"Dear Ray,

Thank you for emailing me about my and the Liberal Democrat stance on surveillance. 

As you are probably aware, the Liberal Democrats are, and always have been, fierce supporters of civil liberties. For many years we have worked hard to protect the fundamental freedoms of UK citizens from the State.

In this parliament Lib Dem Leader Nick Clegg stopped the Tories from introducing the so-called “Snooper’s Charter”. This would have kept a record of the web browsing history of every man, woman and child in this country. Nick Clegg felt that this was a worrying idea, and I am delighted he blocked these proposals.

We need a mature debate in this country about how to best tackle crime and protect privacy in the internet age. Our security and intelligence services must have the right tools to fight crime and terrorism, but this should never come at the expense of civil liberties. The idea of sacrificing freedom for the sake of security is a false choice.

That’s why Nick Clegg called for a radical revamp of the oversight of the intelligence services last year. Nick argued that there needs to be greater transparency and third party oversight in this area, to make sure that we are striking the right balance between privacy and security. Our intelligence services keep the country safe every day, so it is important that the public has trust in them too.

Liberal Democrats have a great record in government on civil liberties. We have scrapped the previous Labour Government’s disastrous ID card scheme and have legislated for a Privacy and Civil Liberties Board to be established too. The Privacy and Civil Liberties Board would be able to review UK terrorism legislation in the future, and it would look at whether we are properly addressing concerns about liberty.

The Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) is the body in Parliament that is responsible for looking at how our intelligence and security services are working. In government the Liberal Democrats have made the ISC a Committee of Parliament, given it more powers, and expanded its remit too. These reforms are an important step in the right direction, and we are committed to going further.

The Liberal Democrats want to introduce a “Digital Bill of Rights” after the 2015 election to give people more power over their data too. This will protect us against blanket surveillance without affecting our ability to tackle emerging threats or target criminals. Our online behaviour should be treated with the same respect as our offline behaviour, and that is why I am glad that my party supports a “Digital Bill of Rights”.

The internet has revolutionised the way that we learn things, share new ideas and communicate with people we know. Our intelligence and security services must always keep up with technological change, but we need a reasonable level of oversight to protect the privacy of UK citizens.

Thank you again for contacting me about this important matter.

Best wishes,

It reads largely as a cut and paste from a party briefing. My further response below including a request that she commit to work to have innocent people's details removed from the domestic extremist database.

Thanks for your prompt response.

Though the Lib Dems did reportedly block the discredited Communications Data Bill (aka snoopers’ charter) your party’s record in government in this area is not exactly pristine. To name but one example, the ill-informed, unscrutinised and hasty rushing through of the Data Retention and Regulatory Powers Act (DRIPA) in the summer of 2014 was fully supported by the Lib Dems. Now I’m not sure whether you have ever read DRIPA – most Lib Dem, Labour and Tory MPs who voted for it did not read it before voting it through, in a rushed almost unprecedented abuse of parliamentary process and there is little evidence to suggest that they have actually done so since – but it’s quite short (only 8 sections) and I would recommend you do. It’s available at Not only did DRIPA re-introduce and expand the data retention practices that the European Court of Justice had, just months previously in the Digital Rights Ireland and Seitlinger case, declared so heinous that they should never have existed, it extended the territorial reach of UK surveillance law to cover the entire world. Additionally DRIPA essentially declares anyone with any gadget connected to the internet is now fair game for surveillance.

Another legacy of Lib Dem coalition government is the destructive Chapter 1 “prevent” duty of the Counter Terrorism and Security Act 2015, imposing an ill-defined duty on public servants, including educators, to report people in danger of “being drawn into terrorism”, an ill-defined transgression. Further provisions of this nominal counter terrorism regulation – the 7th major anti-terrorism act in the past 14 years – include section 21 “Retention of relevant internet data” obligations on communications service providers, including mobile phone operators, to retain communications data, the definition of which has been expanded to include “internet protocol address, or other identifier, belongs to the sender or recipient of a communication (whether or not a person)”.  This imposes vast expensive operational burdens on the industry just in case the data may be useful to the government in the future. This kind of approach was ruled to be an abuse of the legal process in English law as far back as 1765 in the case of Entick v Carrington. The precise details of what specific data will be retained under the Act, how this will be done, by whom, under what conditions and other operational issues relating to making such data available to government is to be worked out in secret between the government and the service providers.

I’m aware of the change in status of the ISC. Unfortunately the publication of their recent report on privacy and security does little to inspire confidence that they can provide the requisite degree of scrutiny of government surveillance practices. In particular the repeated claim that the UK is not engaged in mass surveillance merely “bulk collection” of communications data defies credibility. It’s only computers that “see” the data, you see, not real people, mostly. So nothing to worry about. On which basis we could justify putting digital cameras running 24/7, networked to government surveillance systems, in every room in every household – it would not matter, you see, because most of the video footage captured would not be seen by real people.

The Privacy and Civil Liberties Board sounds positive in theory but the specifics of the coalition proposals in this area have been widely criticised by civil rights groups and the terrorism watchdog, David Anderson.

Whilst the Lib Dems nominal pre-election 2015 support for a Digital Bill of Rights is welcome, the promising promises that your party started with at the beginning of the term of the coalition government proved seriously elusive when it came to implementation. How can we be confident it won’t be the same story again if you find yourself in coalition with the Conservative or Labour parties?

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. This is not an abstract or merely of academic interest. It affects real people, in this constituency, who have found themselves on the government’s domestic extremism database, merely for protesting against the dumping of power station waste into local lakes. So on that note, one final practical question – will you commit to insuring the people who have been tagged by government as domestic extremists, for the appalling sin of trying to protect local lakes and landscapes, have their details removed from the domestic extremist database?



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.