The latest report by the Interception of Communications Commissioner reveals that government authorities monitored citizens’ telephone calls and emails more than 500,000 times last year.
This “Use of Communications Data" is permitted under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, which has introduced a system of governmental surveillance on a scale unprecedented in Britain, and internationally unrivalled.
Of course, the police and the security services need the means to investigate serious crimes and prevent acts of terrorism, but these demands must always be balanced against the protection of privacy; both because our privacy is inherently valuable, and because a system of surveillance inevitably risks abuse by rogue employees or government itself. A just policy must be based on two principles: proportionality and supervision.
The current arrangement is far from proportional. The Act (together with subsequent statutory instruments) allows almost 800 government bodies, from the Charity Commission to Wiltshire County Council, many with no obvious law enforcement responsibilities, to view our telephone and email records, and to send employees to follow us covertly. These powers have notoriously been used to pursue infringements as trivial as allowing a dog to foul on the street. The power to listen in on our telephone calls, surely among the greatest possible intrusions into our privacy, can be justified under the dangerously imprecise purpose of “safeguarding the economic well-being of the United Kingdom." We must recognise that these surveillance measures should only be used in the most serious circumstances, and (given past events) we should not trust the authorities to exercise restraint in their use of the legislation. The measures must be restricted by statute to be employed only by the police and security services, and only in cases of national security or serious criminal behaviour.
The RIPA act is even weaker in ensuring adequate supervision. All the surveillance measures covered in the Act can be authorized by an officer of appropriate seniority within the investigating organisation itself, with the exception of intercepting the contents of telephone calls and emails, which requires a warrant be signed by the Home Secretary. These are hopeless safeguards: the executive has no incentive to restrain itself. Authorisation of surveillance must be put in the hands of the judiciary (as the Lib Dems suggest), who can provide genuinely independent supervision with adequate concern for citizens’ privacy. Unless a court decides to the contrary, details of any surveillance should be released to the suspect if a conviction does not result.