Government snooping

The government’s attempt to use secondary legislation (subject to the approval of parliament) to enable 24 categories of public body, including local authorities and the Food Standards Agency, to have access to our email and web-surfing records, has had to be suspended in the face of a gale of opposition from the liberal left to the libertarian right. Ministers protest indignantly that in fact the draft Order in question merely sought to introduce valuable safeguards against the abuse of powers which the public authorities concerned already possess. And they have a point. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 ("RIPA"), which completed its passage through parliament and received the Royal Assent in July 2000, does indeed include long lists of persons and authorities authorised to snoop on our communications, electronic and other, to be given the key to enable them to decipher ciphered communications, and to keep a watchful eye on our other activities, including (for example) snooping powers for the Ministry of Defence, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the Department of Health, the Home Office, the Department of Social Security, the Department of Trade and Industry, the Intervention Board for Agricultural Produce and—here it is— the Food Standards Agency. The Post Office is there, too. The Minister also has sweeping powers to add to the various lists by making an Order, although this must be approved by both Houses of Parliament. (You can see some of the more alarming extracts from the Act by clicking here.) Admittedly the government got its way with the enactment of RIPA only after several abortive attempts, riding on the back of public concerns about crime and terrorism, although much of RIPA has nothing to do with either crime or terrorism: for example, the circumstances in which various kinds of surreptitious snooping may be authorised generally include something on these lines:

  • in the interests of the economic well-being of the United Kingdom;
  • in the interests of public safety;
  • for the purpose of protecting public health;
  • for the purpose of assessing or collecting any tax, duty, levy or other imposition, contribution or charge payable to a government department; or
  • for any purpose not falling within [the other items in the list] … which is specified for the purposes of this subsection by an order made by the Secretary of State.

Like the recent Order which caused such a blizzard of protest, RIPA was defended by ministers as introducing safeguards for and controls over various kinds of snooping already taking place and needing to be properly regulated. The fact that RIPA was approved by either House of Parliament is worrying enough: the suggestion that the practices which it authorises have been going on since long before RIPA is positively chilling. The condemnation of the recent Order is perfectly justified on the merits, but ministers have a case when they say, in effect, that it’s a bit late!

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