Sunday, 13 April 2014

There is more than a ‘feel’ of too many about government phone intercepts.

Police may be overusing their power to gather information about people’s communication data, so says Commissioner for Interception Sir Anthony May.

In 2013 there were 514,608 requests for information such as who owns a particular phone and who the owner may have called, this, Sir Anthony says, ‘has the feel of being too many.’

His report clears GCHQ of breaking the law, an accusation levelled at it by Edward Snowden. Concern has also been expressed that the police are using their interception powers in areas the law does not intend them to and that may infringe civil rights, the report finds that only a fraction of the requests made were for purposes other than the detection of crime.

Responding to the report Prime Minister David Cameron told the BBC that it showed that ‘public authorities’ did not engage in ‘indiscriminate random mass intrusion.’

Foreign Secretary William Hague, also speaking to the BBC, said that a ‘senior and independent judge’ had looked into whether the police and other agencies misuse their interception powers and ‘concluded the answer is emphatically no;’ the government was though, he said, open to suggestions to strengthen the oversight framework.’

Speaking about the number of phone intercepts Sir Anthony May told the BBC that it ‘really does require to be investigated whether there may not be an institutional overemphasis in police forces on progressing their criminal investigations and an under emphasis on privacy.’

During the period covered by the report there were 970 errors made in the interception process, two of which resulted in warrants being executed at the homes of innocent people.
Don’t you just love judges, they have such a way with words. Be it puncturing the egos of cultural icons, ‘who are the Beatles?’ or, as in this case wielding understatement like a scalpel, they can do the most remarkable things with the English language.

Saying that 514,608 has about the ‘feeling’ of being too many is roughly equivalent to Scott of the Antarctic lifting the flap of his tent and saying ‘blimey it looks a bit chilly out’.

To me it has the ‘feel’ of a massive disconnect between we the public and the agencies who are supposed to be protecting us.

In the post Snowden world the old line having nothing to fear it you have nothing to hide no longer cuts the mustard. If the police and the government feel obliged to intercept phone calls on this scale then even the most innocent amongst us will start to feel we have something to hide and much to fear.

Whilst I realise that the apprehension of terrorists and serious criminals will always require some degree of interception of phone calls and other forms of communication surveillance on the scale at which it is starting to be carried out now does nothing to keep our society safe. In fact it might make it a more dangerous and less trusting place in which to live.

At worst we could end up in a situation not dissimilar to that faced by the hapless residents of the former GDR, where husbands and wives routinely spy on each other and walls really do have ears; usually attached to a stasi agent. A society where everyone it watching everyone else crushes trust and allows every mean spirited bully the chance to become a tyrant just by turning informer.

Does all this sound a bit far- fetched, maybe even a little paranoid? Consider then the calls made with the smirking support of the coalition by certain sections of the media for you and I to rat on the ‘benefits scrounger’ in our street; a dystopia of suspicion and public denunciations is only a moral panic away.

I defer to Sir Anthony’s superior knowledge of the law when he says the police and other agencies haven’t breached legislation as it currently stands. That doesn’t though stop me from thinking that if phone calls are being intercepted on this scale in a single year then the law is badly in need of being changed, because it is an ass.

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