When I was a councillor, press coverage started to emerge of flagrant abuses (although not illegal ones) of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. This Act was penned initially for the secret services in the pursuance of anti-terrorism, but for some very odd reason, the powers within it – especially Part III which allows for telecommunications interception – were later extended to local councils by the then Home Secretary, David Blunkett.

Essentially this meant that:

  • Councils had the power to instruct ISPs (it would be illegal for them to refuse) to bug the user’s Internet use. Although the only information received by the council would be the package data and the domain name. E.g. if you went to www.veryspecifictasteporn.com/hornymenindungarees/ the only bit the council would see is www.veryspecifictasteporn.com. The content of the page visited would not be available.
  • Councils could instruct your telecomms companies to provide essentially what is an itemised phone bill of your call usage. They would not be able to intercept the content of the call, but they would know who you called and when.
  • Telecommunications data isn’t just web browsing. It’s any digital data sent via an ISP (e.g. O2 is an ISP if you’re using mobile internet). As most smartphones these days send package data that contains the coordinates of the request’s originator (i.e. exactly where in the world you were when you made that request), I *still* don’t have an answer from my former council or from others that legally, as said coordinates can form part of the data package header and does not necessarily legally form part of the content, would councils be able to access geo-data from mobile phones and effectively track where a person was at the time of any data request sent by their phones? When I did ask it, the answer certainly wasn’t a no. I’m a suspicious chap when it comes to civil liberties (as we should all be), so any other answer other than “no” wasn’t good enough.
  • Most viciously, the above was subject to scrutiny only of the authority in question’s nominated Information Officer. So basically, an internal figure within the council would approve or reject RIPA requests. A crime did not need to have been committed or suspected of for these requests to be signed off.
  • The data collected on individuals, whether they are guilty or not, is typically retained for six years.

We didn’t need these powers. So myself and then Tory Councillor Sheridan Westlake moved a motion to council to surrender them. In addition, we demanded that surveillance in any guise should only ever be used to pursue crimes the council investigates that attract a custodial sentence (i.e. fly-tipping and benefit fraud). RIPA requests should not be signed off to see if families are putting bins out on the right day. The latter was agreed by the Tory administration, the former (surrendering our powers under Part III of the act – the power to intercept telecommunications) was not. Oddly, despite spending the entire council meeting arguing that they would never use said powers, they seemed rather keen to keep them. Just in case of course.

So when the coalition tried to soothe our fears by suggesting that the new laws wouldn’t make a difference to current legislation, but would bring things into line with it instead, that was nowhere near good enough. The Tories and Lib Dems both promised to scale back the surveillance state. They have done so with ID cards – well done there. They’ve effectively rebranded control orders (although they certainly aren’t as bad as they used to be). We do not need another snoopers’ charter to intrude further into the private lives of law-abiding individuals.

Julian Huppert has come up with the barebones of a petition demanding caveats in any draft legislation to be produced by the government. Although I support these as a starting point, I’d like to suggest the following changes/additions:

1. Any investigation on an individual must be commissioned, approved and signed by the Home Secretary. This is before any ISP or provider is instructed to track the activity of an individual; not simply once the data has been collected.

2. These requests must only be commissioned for the most serious of crimes. E.g. terrorism, sex offences, homicide, etc.

3. The data collected on individuals whereby the investigation concludes they are innocent of the crime they were initially suspected of must be destroyed and not retained in any form immediately, pending any appeals process.

In the meantime, please sign Julian’s petition. The devil will be in the details of this snoopers’ charter. Always worry and suspect when the Home Secretary needs to use terrorism as their excuse for everything.

If anybody ever asks “if you’ve done nothing wrong, what do you have to hide”, make sure you let them know the answer: “everything”.


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