When it was passed into law, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000) sounded a pretty innocuous piece of legislation. But in truth it represented a significant victory for the busybody state over our ancient liberties.
Labour claimed it was responding to demands from civil liberties campaigners for more control over state snooping.
But it soon became clear that the legislation which Jack Straw, then Home Secretary, was introducing would have the opposite effect, massively expanding the ability of the public sector to pry into our private lives.
The Act, which has been quietly amended several times (each time handing more powers to the public sector), now gives an unprecedented range of state agencies the right to listen to our phone conversations, tap our emails and open our post.
In the last nine months of 2006, 960 new applications for the right to peer into the private lives of Britons were made every day.
It is a level of Government surveillance that would make even the Stasi, the former East German secret police renowned as the world’s most effective intelligence agency, proud.
There are three different types of surveillance. The first, interception of communications – listening in while people are on the phone, or watching what we do on the internet – is the most difficult to justify.
But the grounds for interception are so wide as to allow most requests to be approved. As well as the more predictable excuse of “national security”, they include “safeguarding the economic well-being of the UK”. The police, the security services and Customs can all use this technique but they need authorisation from the Home Secretary herself or, in urgent cases, get temporary permission from one of her senior officials.
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In the name of ‘national security’: We are listening (posed by model)
The second type is surveillance – old-fashioned spying. The list of possible justifications for this is absurdly long – including “to prevent and detect crime or prevent disorder, public safety, public health, to assess or collect any tax, duty, levy or other charge payable to a government department”. Just about any of us could be under surveillance using one of this list.
Most worryingly, a long list of government agencies – including 474 councils – can put us under the spotlight. Senior officials in each one can simply give the go-ahead and apply for a rubber stamp to be given later by the Interception Commissioner.
This Commissioner, former judge Sir Paul Kennedy, with a team of five inspectors, is supposed to check to make sure that all the bugging and spying waived through by the Home Secretary or others has been justified.
His report this week identifies more than 1,000 cases over nine months where he found that the rules had been broken.
The third type of surveillance is the most common – access to communications data.
This includes discovering the identities of who we phone and which internet sites we visit. This information is even easier for public authorities to obtain with relatively junior officials able to authorise it.
Later, as in the case of surveillance, justification for needing this information is considered by overworked bureaucrats accountable to the Interception Commissioner.
But by the time his staff gets round to looking at the paperwork, the trading standards officers down at the town hall, for example, may have been peering at your phone and internet records for more than a year.
There is a tribunal to which you can complain, but since virtually no one under surveillance will know they are being watched, the tribunal isn’t busy and has virtually never found in favour of a complainant.
How did the Government get away with this? Well, the Lords did make a fuss at the time. Tory peer Lord Northesk said it “sanctioned mass domestic surveillance measures”.
The Government appeared to be forced into a climbdown. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) initially only covered the nine most crucial law enforcement agencies (police, the taxman, the intelligence agencies etc).
But this merely delayed the stealthy march of Big Brother. In 2004, the number of groups with the right to poke in our lives expanded to 792; the laws to allow this had been slipped quietly through the Commons by David Blunkett.
As usual, Whitehall got its way by waiting for the fuss to die down. Incidentally, the only group with an exemption from being bugged are MPs themselves.
But the Act didn’t merely extend the rights of bureaucrats to check on us, it also forced the larger internet service providers to build into their systems the technological capability to cater for all this snooping.
In practice, the result was that “black boxes” were installed in all main ISPs, copying all the information available to them straight to the security services. Then, when MI5 or the police obtain an authorisation for surveillance, they merely tap into the black box. In return, the internet companies have been able to recoup some of their costs from the taxpayer.
While writing this article, I made several phone calls and looked at a number of sources on the internet. If anyone in Whitehall can think of a plausible reason why this article threatens the economic security of Britain, or any of the myriad excuses detailed above, they will be able this morning to see who I spoke to and where I went on the net, to conduct my research. Surely, that can’t be right?