Human rights in the headlines: a pro-Snowden James Bond and the spectre of the Snoopers' Charter

Posted by Katie Bamber on 23 October 2015

This was the week we learnt that James Bond’s latest incarnation is “sexily pro-Snowden”. As always, 007’s timing is impeccable – because this was also the week that saw the spectre of the Snoopers’ Charter return with a vengeance.

On Monday, MPs held an emergency debate on the Wilson Doctrine. The Doctrine started life in 1966 as a promise from Prime Minister Harold Wilson to MPs that they would not have their telephones tapped. Since then, successive PMs have repeated that promise, and extended the Doctrine to cover emails and parliamentarians in devolved administrations.

But after Green Party MP Caroline Lucas launched a challenge to find out if her communications had been intercepted, the Government let slip that the Doctrine had never been absolute and no longer covers Scottish Parliament or Welsh Assembly members

And last week the Investigatory Powers Tribunal added insult to injury by ruling that it’s not legally enforceable anyway. It seems highly unlikely Ms Lucas will now be able to discover whether she was placed under surveillance or not.

With the Doctrine in tatters, campaigners, whistle-blowers and constituents who contact their elected representative for help are no longer protected from State spying. As Conservative Peter Bone put it during the debate: “Our job is to scrutinise the Government, and if they had listened in to some of my conversations they would rightly be concerned. No doubt, they could use what I said against me, but that is not the point. We are here to scrutinise the Government and we need this protection.”

For their eyes only

Thursday saw the Government take fight against our successful challenge to its emergency spying law, the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act, to the Court of Appeal. 

In July, the High Court declared DRIPA unlawful because it contains no safeguards to make sure our communications data is accessed only to help prevent and detect serious crime, and because access to that data isn’t signed off by a judge. The Government should and could have responded sensibly to the High Court’s ruling, which asks for the most basic protections for our privacy. 

Instead, the hearing comes as the Home Secretary prepares to put similar legislation before Parliament. The Draft Investigatory Powers Bill is expected to seek to expand the mass data-gathering powers we challenged in this case – and to enable the tracking of every person’s web and social media use.

A licence to hack

What’s more – as reported in The Times this week – the Bill will contain “dizzying” new capabilities including granting security services powers to practise “CNE”. That’s computer network exploitation – or hacking, to you and me.

We know from recent challenges that the security services already act as if they have the power to do all of this – so having it confirmed in law is some sort of progress. 

But hacking, as our Legal Director James Welch told The Times, is much more intrusive than ‘traditional’ forms of surveillance, including interception. It means the State can break into our computers, phones and tablets; take copies of documents, photos or emails; download apps that track us; turn on phone cameras or record what we say. 

And once they break in, anyone can. It’s the equivalent of a burglar breaking into your house without you realising, then leaving the door open for anyone else to walk straight in. You won’t even know the break-in happened, let alone that your home – or device – is now vulnerable to attack from criminals or foreign security services. But, for those in the know, there may as well be a big sign on your front gate saying “hackers welcome”.

It seems absurd that the Government would seek to introduce powers that will make us less safe, but that’s exactly what hacking does. Parliament must think long and hard about whether the State should be allowed to use these disturbing techniques at all.

From Russia with love

It’s difficult to overstate how pivotal the coming weeks will be for the privacy of every single person in this country. Liberty has called for an overhaul of our surveillance laws for years – and the Investigatory Powers Bill offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity for parliamentarians to set out spying powers clearly in law, along with strong safeguards to make sure both our safety and our privacy are protected.

The safeguards we’re calling for – judicial sign-off on spying requests, public disclosure of powers, targeted surveillance – are nothing extreme. They would simply bring us into line with a huge number of democratic countries worldwide. There’s only one other country that we know requires service providers to routinely store every user’s weblogs – and that’s Russia.

The Government must seize this opportunity for reform and use it to respond to concerns of MPs, experts, the High Court and the general public – not resort to the politics of fear and hijack this legislation to create an even bigger surveillance state.

Katie Bamber

Katie Bamber

Communications Director