Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Carry on snooping

The Snoopers' Charter is dead, right? Nick Clegg killed it the other week, putting an end to the Communications Data Bill, the latest incarnation of the Home Office's long-term plan to store details of everyone's website visits and email communications. Instead Her Maj today announced some modest-sounding (though in practice rather tricky) idea about solving "the problem of matching internet protocol addresses". But lest this lull people into thinking that the grand design of the CDP had been ditched after its original draft was ripped to shreds last year by a Parliamentary committee, the Home Office was soon spinning that the Snoopers' Charter was very much still in play.

A superficially vague assertion that the government was "committed to ensuring that law enforcement and intelligence agencies have the powers they need to protect the public and ensure national security" raised many reporter's suspicions, and the Home Office has done nothing to disabuse them. Thus the BBC's Jane Wakefield writes of the "government's determination to increase surveillance powers to take account of new technologies such as social media, web mail and internet phone calls". Meanwhile, a Home Office spokesperson "confirmed to Techworld that the government is still looking closely at ways to provide law enforcement and intelligence agencies with the information they need to ensure public safety, and this may involve legislation".

Says Emma Carr of Big Brother Watch:

It is beyond comprehension for the Home Office to think that this gives them licence to carry on regardless with a much broader bill that has been demonstrated as unworkable and dangerous by experts, business groups and the wider public. It is not surprising that some officials may want to keep trying, having already failed three times under two different governments, to introduce massively disproportionate and intrusive powers, but that is quite clearly not what Her Majesty has put forward today.

But is it really "beyond comprehension". Is it not rather just what one would expect?

As Mark Wallace notes, this is "a classic example of a policy which the Civil Service has decided to pursue at all costs, hence the fact it crops up so regularly, regardless of which party is in power, and is proving so hard to shake." Indeed. It's worth digging up an old quote from Henry Porter, who used to be the Guardian's civil liberties guru during the dark days of New Labour (whatever became of him), and who wrote in April 2009 of what was then called the Interception Modernisation Programme,

The civil servants behind the scheme have a very long horizon indeed – an agenda that is designed to survive cuts in public spending and any change of government. They will argue the urgent necessity of the case with force and plausibility to inexperienced Conservative ministers, as they have done to the co-operative second raters in the present government."

Theresa May, despite a promising start, has proved to be both abject and gullible when it comes to Home Office advice, to the extent of making it seem to all the world that the Communications Data Bill was her own baby. This of course suits the simple-minded approach of the political commentariat, who can only conceive of such measures in terms of jockeying for position between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems. (The Telegraph, for example, heading its account of today's Home Office spin as "'Snoopers' charter' resurrected by Conservatives".) More cannily, Mark Wallace points to the role played by the ex-spook Charles Farr, described as the architect of the grand design and as the "Home Office's top securocrat." Farr, who is also said to be the brains behind the recent secret courts legislation, happens to be the partner of Theresa May's special adviser Fiona Cunningham, something that is rumoured to have stymied his chances of becoming Permanent Secretary at the HO, but which is unlikely to have prevented his advice getting through to May herself.

The Snoopers Charter may be both intrusive and impractable, as well as hard to justify in terms of cost, not to mention bad for the economy, but all the signs are that the permanent government remains enormously committed to it. In opposition, the Conservatives were as solidly opposed to the plans as Nick Clegg (with much prompting from the grassroots) latterly turned out to be, but that didn't stop them falling for the Home Office schtick. Labour are barely even going through the motions. "Labour has missed a huge opportunity to redefine itself as a party of civil liberties" complains Ed Paton-Williams (there's a nice proletarian name for you) on Labour List; they "remained silent" when they should have been a leading voice against the Bill and "started the process of positioning itself as the party of civil liberties that Ed Miliband clearly wanted to lead."

Indeed. Given how easy it would be for Labour to discover, once they won the next election, that there was after all for a pressing need for the Snoopers' Charter, there's no reason for them to oppose it so half-heartedly now (unless, of course, they're still in thrall to Blairite fears of being found anywhere to the left of the Tories on questions of law and order). But then we remember how genuinely enthusiastic Labour was about pursuing an authoritarian agenda when in government; it would be expecting too much for them to change now.