A couple of weeks ago I attended a meeting of the Manchester branch of the Open Rights Group to discuss the proposed Investigatory Powers Bill known as the IPBill and currently about to be discussed and voted on by the House of Lords.
The meeting included a showing of The Haystack (http://thehaystackdocumentary.squarespace.com/watch/) a short documentary film about surveillance in the UK. We then had an open discussion of the film and the IPBill with a panel including Gary Herman from the National Union of Journalists, Gary Hough from Zen Internet, Loz Kaye from Open Intelligence, and myself.
While recognising the threats posed by terrorism, paedophilia, and organised crime, the room seemed unanimous in its belief that the IPBill is poorly conceived, lacking in detail, and over-reaching in its powers. For some background on the IPBill see https://wiki.openrightsgroup.org/wiki/Investigatory_Powers_Bill.
Many significant questions were raised during the meeting about the practicality of the bill. The concerns included:
- Can the powers described in the bill be technically achieved?
- Can the data collected be held securely and what would happen if it were to fall into the hands of organised crime?
- Who will pay to implement the data collection and storage?
- Will searches of the data yield meaningful results or will there be a disproportionate number of 'false positives'?
- What impact will the bill have on the Internet and on society at large?
One important additional question is "how did we get here?" It seems likely that we have boxed our politicians into a corner: when there is a bad news story (such as a terrorist attack), we, or the Press supposedly on our behalves, demand to know why it wasn't prevented. The politicians, therefore, go to the security services and police and ask what tools they want in order to ensure it doesn't happen again. And, of course, this puts the spies and law enforcers in a tight spot because now they will be held responsible, so they obviously ask for strong powers. Pervasive bulk surveillance is just one of the arrows they demand for their quiver.
But, as noted in The Haystack, "In a free society you cannot secure every restaurant." And as the meeting at ORG agreed, even though the proposed powers may be dramatically extensive, they may turn out to be only the thin end of a very large wedge that turns the UK into a police state.
Fear of erroneous accusations based on "correlation of data points" already influences how people express their opinions online. Those who feel vulnerable or threatened will tend to keep their heads down, and this has a chilling effect on participation in democracy and debate.
So what can we do about it?
It seems essential to say "no" loudly and clearly. But in the new post-referendum world it is highly unclear how we can influence our politicians – indeed, it is pretty unclear which of our politicians we need to influence as they engage in their own massive game of musical chairs!
Certainly this is not the time for online petitions, a mass mailing of postcards, or a protest march. While these might show the volume of opposition, they have a low threshold to participation and are largely ignored by our representatives. In any case, they are likely to be swamped in the current noise around the referendum result. Furthermore, such ways of lobbying can even be counter-productive as MPs frequently point out that only a small fraction of the electorate has objected.
So what we need to do is return to traditional means of lobbying. We need to be polite and informative. We need to visit our MPs and to write them letters that are concise and relevant. In short, we need convince them of our arguments.
Only four weeks ago, my MP implied to me that we had no reason to worry about the IPBill because the powers it created would only be used by our elected Government and we all know we can completely trust our Government to do the right thing. But now, just a short time later, we have no idea who will lead our parties in the Commons, we have an Opposition with no shadow ministers responsible for Justice (Lord Falconer and Karl Turner having jumped out of the plane). We also have a startling rise of racist incidents on our streets, and pressure from the political right wing to have more of a say. Now is surely not the best time to be creating such a surveillance state.