If the Conservative Party does not conserve liberty then we find ourselves in the bitterly lamentable situation in which there are no political parties in Britain defending the most important political principle of all.
A party that champions and defends freedom is one worth believing in, as it stands we are still suffering the aggressive erosion of individual liberty and expansion of state power instigated by the Labour Party. The Conservative Party is carrying the illiberal torch and running with it. This I cannot abide.
I want this country to be a free country but the powers that be do not, and a great many of the public repeat that awful, and discredited, mantra: If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. Tell that to the innocent people who are persecuted because of the constant and inevitable abuse of state power and illiberal legislation.
The Draft Investigatory Powers Bill will give the state new powers to track our communications and does not include the necessary safeguards. I acknowledge the necessity of investigating criminals and terrorists in our new digital age, and there is a need to properly define the balance, the limitations and the obligations of the state and the public.
Sadly, the draft Bill falls well short of this and will create unprecedented new powers of surveillance without adequately protecting our privacy and our online security.
It is absolutely essential to strike the right balance and a crucial part of this is proper judicial authorisation of requests for surveillance, in the same way authorisation is needed before searching our home and invading our privacy the “old fashioned way”.
The Draft Bill includes limited judicial review of Ministerial decisions that will see judges compelled to rubber stamp warrants in most instances:
In exercising functions under this Act, a Judicial Commissioner must not act in a way which is contrary to the public interest or prejudicial to:
(a) national security;
(b) the prevention or detection of serious crime; or
(c) the economic well-being of the United Kingdom
Let’s not be fooled into thinking we are protected by an independent judiciary closely scrutinising each case before approval, their role is be a minimal supervisory one. The Secretary of State will approve the warrant and then, nominally, it must be approved by a judge also; but their oversight is limited and subject to the above ambiguous decisions.
Furthermore, and crucially, if the request for a warrant is deemed “urgent” this procedure does not even have to be followed. David Davis MP spotted the dangers:
‘I draw everybody’s attention to section 19(2), which tells the judicial commissioners they have to make decisions based on judicial review principles, not on the basis of the evidence. In other words, the Home Secretary would have to behave in an extraordinary manner not to get his or her warrant approved. This is not the judge checking the evidence, it is the judge checking that the correct procedure has been followed.’
The Bill proposes blanket retention of ‘internet connection records’ so the state can snoop on the videos we upload, the sites we visit and the apps we download and use – a power not held by any government in any other liberal democracy.
The power to hack into our devices and networks will be extended to all police forces and the government will compel service providers to facilitate the execution of warrants for hacking.
This Bill does not “strike a balance” or put in place the required restrictive measures on authority. Instead it intends to create a state of mass surveillance; interception and hacking of our data and storage of that data on databases we are supposed to believe will be secure.
Nothing digital is secure, so are we really happy for the police, or spooks to harvest our data en mass and store it on databases that could be vulnerable to attack and stolen by hackers?
The US President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies concluded that bulk harvesting of data resulted in no discernible increase in public safety. And when we are under threat mostly from drug addled, lone wolf morons with deluded ideological fantasies who go out on a limb with a bomb or a weapon, how can this astonishing peace time increase in state power possibly be justified?
Fanatical Islamist terrorism is a threat to public safety, and of course we must be protected from it; but even at its most organised – and it is generally haphazard rather than organised – it isn’t a threat to the integrity of the state, it isn’t a threat that cannot be dealt with by powers that come with the proper restrictions, obligations and oversight.
It isn’t a threat that requires the people of this country to have their internet records, phone calls and emails analysed, shared and stored, to an extent that is a serious threat to our privacy and security. It isn’t a threat that requires the erosion of liberty and the betrayal of our values and way of life.
The security services that must use fear to justify their budgets are slavishly trusted by the public and the government who ought to be more sceptical.
There has to be proper judicial scrutiny of requests for surveillance, and such requests must be submitted based on clear reasoning and tightly defined purposes; the target must be under suspicion of criminal activities, and the judge must be adequately convinced of this.
The state should not put our data security at risk by forcing companies to store our data.
The UK should lift the ban on intercept evidence like in every other Common Law country, preventing the need for so many of the illiberal anti-terror measures introduced to bypass apparent “evidential” issues.
There are signs of unrest and unease over this Bill. I sincerely hope the unrest increases, for this Bill must be resisted. I say this to the government: go back to the drawing board and come back with something with the adequate protections, oversight, transparency and balance. Come back with something worthy of a free country.
Yes, we must uphold public safety, but we must also conserve our privacy, online security and our liberty.
Ben is a writer, editor and Brexit campaigner. He advocates a counter-revolution to achieve the restoration of constitutional liberty and national independence. He blogs at The Sceptic Isle. Follow him on Twitter: @TheScepticIsle