In the Media

Parliament must protect the public's privacy

PUBLISHED April 3, 2012

Yesterday, ministers cited the Soham murders as justification for the Home Office's plan to monitor every phone call made, every email sent and every website accessed by everyone in the country. No one could reasonably object to the access of phone or internet records to help police pursue such an investigation. But ministers wisely avoided suggesting that the proposals could have prevented the killings. In that case, the authorities failed to pick up on a string of police investigations into allegations of sexual crimes by Ian Huntley, because of human errors - not lack of information.

In contrast, the current proposals were originally sold as a preventative - not prosecutorial - measure, critical for maintaining real-time surveillance to head off threats to national security and public protection. Around four years ago, I was taken into a dark room at the Home Office where security officials showed me a chart demonstrating that if the new plans did not go ahead, UK surveillance capability would fall off a cliff-edge. And yet, despite the last government dropping the plans, we have a lower terrorist threat level than before. My experience of working with the intelligence agencies ingrained a deep respect for their unsung work. But it also taught me to test their assertions. Let's not forget we have been here before. Labour's authoritarian proposals for ID cards and 90 days pre-charge detention were sold as measures necessary to keep the streets of Britain safe. Patient parliamentary scrutiny rubbished both claims.

Equally, the surveillance powers sold by Tony Blair as vital in the fight against terrorism and organised crime have been stretched beyond recognition. Our phone calls and emails are monitored by more than the police and intelligence agencies. There are now 400 councils and countless quangos snooping on us. In total, 10,000 requests for personal data are made each week. So, take it with a large pinch of salt when shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper complains that "we need clear checks and balances… so that privacy and security are both protected".

The new proposals would extend this surveillance to BlackBerrys, instant messaging, texting, web-browsing, internet-based email, Skype, Facebook and online games. The plan is to use data-mining techniques to detect trends that might give the authorities a lead. But phone companies and internet providers are lining up to warn officials that the proposed system is so flawed that it would send the authorities on wild-goose chases, and expose innocent people to criminal investigation, hacking and fraud.

Besides, as the Omagh bombing showed, draining the swamp for information does not mean you get results. Authorities intercepted conversations between the bombers before the attack - but failed to act on the information to stop the atrocity, and couldn't use it to prosecute the perpetrators.

The real lesson from Soham was spelt out following an inquiry by Sir Michael Bichard, who warned: "When priorities have had to be made, intelligence seems to have been put on the back-burner." Intelligence-led policing, not Orwellian surveillance is the key to protecting the public. Ironically, with plans to monitor every innocent citizen, we retain a ban on using intercept evidence to prosecute terrorists. The Home Office chart that should worry us most is the one showing that annual convictions under terrorism legislation fell by 100 per cent (from 31) in the last four years, because of the weakness of the law enforcement strategy inherited from Labour.

Technical issues aside, phone companies and internet providers are far from happy at the prospect of the damage done to their brands by collaborating in the privatisation of Big Brother surveillance. Nor will the public swallow a scheme that, in the words of the Information Commissioner, heralds "a step change in the relationship between the citizen and the state". Public opinion backed identity cards when they were first proposed, but collapsed once people realised the impact on their privacy, and the vulnerability of such massive data-sharing schemes.

There is still time to salvage the plans. But it would require three checks, as well as resolving any technical vulnerabilities. First, the scheme should be limited to terrorism and a list of serious crimes. Second, access to data should be confined to the intelligence agencies and police. Third, access should be subject to a warrant approved by a judge. This would not hamper law enforcement - no judge would have refused a warrant in the Soham case.

A government's first duty is to protect the public. But, ultimately, it falls to Parliament to scrutinise the security case for these proposals, preserve the privacy of the law-abiding majority, and protect the country from yet another epic data-sharing disaster.

Dominic Raab is the MP for Esher & Walton