Britain leads the world in the use of CCTV. As a result, surveillance has become an inescapable part of life. Britain has a larger DNA base and more police powers and email snooping than any comparable liberal democracy.
This is the very solid base for home secretary Teresa May’s new bill which will allow GCHQ to conduct real-time surveillance of a person’s communications and their web usage. The intelligence services and police will have powers to insist that internet and phone companies hand over our data without our knowledge. The home secretary hopes to introduce legislative changes after the Queen’s speech next month because of the importance of moving quickly. “Obviously the longer you leave it, the quicker technology can move on. I would hope that we will be able to do this in a bill in the next session” she said.
Downing Street initially brushed aside libertarian objections to maintain that laws will be passed in the coming parliamentary sessions to extend state surveillance on the internet. Draft clauses would be published as part of a bill for discussion, but No 10 insisted that this did not imply the government was backtracking. Now plans have been put on hold after being condemned by MPs of all parties. Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, announced that the contentious measures would only be published in draft form and would be subject to widespread consultation, concessions that could delay the proposals for at least a year.
The coalition partners appear to be on a collision course after the Liberal Democrat president, Tim Farron, said his party was prepared to kill any moves towards universal surveillance. He said the Lib Dems would resist any threat to a free and liberal society.
The opposing positions of Farron and May follow a reported row between Nick Clegg’s office and the Home Office after the ‘Sunday Times’ reported that the government was reviving a Labour plan to scrutinise on demand every phone call, text message and email sent and website accessed in real time. Which poses an interesting question. If a Labour government with a solid majority was forced to abandon such legislation, what grounds has the Prime Minister to think that he, with no Tory majority and a prospective mutiny in the Lib Dem ranks, can whip it through now?
Then he would certainly have trouble with the House of Lords. “We regard privacy and the application of executive and legislative restraint to the use of surveillance and data collection powers as necessary conditions for the exercise of individual freedom and liberty.” Not the words of a committed civil liberties campaigner but the considered opinion of the House of Lords Constitution Committee.
If the bill as reported is made law Britain will become a substantially less free country. Together with secret courts, this is among the most serious threats to freedom proposed anywhere in the democratic world, coupled with a bungling bureaucracy that keeps losing vital information. It competes with the very worst of Labour’s authoritarian laws and their obsession with personal information, which the coalition is pledged to roll back.
Can we really defend our freedom by sacrificing it? The government stress that the proposals cover data on where a call is made from, when and by whom. The authorities would still need a warrant to access the contents of such communication. But once the intelligence services and police have powers to insist that internet and phone companies hand over data without our knowledge, in a perceived crisis it would be a short step for the same people to argue that they need to start reading our communications.
The only thing that George Orwell got wrong was the year.