"I love watching crime dramas on the television. There’s hardly a crime drama where a crime is solved without using the data of a mobile communications device." British Prime Minister David Cameron to the Joint Committee on National Security Strategy, 31 January 2014.
The Don't Spy On Us campaign is a coalition of the most influential organisations who defend privacy, free expression and digital rights in the UK and in Europe. We've come together to fight back against the system of unfettered mass state surveillance that Edward Snowden has exposed. Right now, the UK’s intelligence services are conducting mass surveillance that violates internet user's privacy and chills free speech. The impact globally may be more profound. If democracies turn a blind eye to mass surveillance, dictatorships will build ever more dystopian surveillance programmes to shut down the space for democratic activism, civil society and internet freedom.
The current laws haven't stopped the intelligence services expanding their reach into our private lives. Don't Spy On Us is calling for an inquiry to report before the next general election to investigate the extent to which the law has failed and suggest new legislation that will make the spooks accountable to our elected representatives, put an end to mass surveillance in line with our 6 principles and let judges not the Home Secretary decide when spying is justified.
I'm not a criminal or terrorist, why would this affect me?
Own a smartphone? Ever buy things online, or use a social network? Have you used a mobile phone in a hospital? Play Angry Birds, or enjoy cricket? OK, well it's very likely some of your data will have passed through GCHQ's surveillance programmes. GCHQ doesn't need to persuade a judge before it analyses your data, it can do so using the lax surveillance laws which give it sweeping powers - in particular if you are a foreign national. Yet we just don't know how many people are affected because GCHQ won't tell us or even Parliamentarians what it is up to.
What has allowed this to happen?
The UK has rapidly expanded its surveillance capabilities over recent years through new legislation in Parliament. In 2013, the government tried to extend these powers further through the draft Communications Data Bill. Luckily, campaigning groups and charities managed to stop the government but this success was limited. As we now know, the Snowden revelations have shown the law is still so broad it grants the intelligence agencies enough powers to engage in mass population surveillance.
What does international law say?
The international legal framework on this is clear. Mass or blanket surveillance contravenes Article 8 (the right to respect for private and family life) and Article 10 (the right to freedom of expression) of the European Convention on Human Rights. The European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly stated that surveillance, if conducted without adequate judicial oversight and with no effective safeguards against abuse, will never be compatible with the European Convention. In response, a number of campaigning groups are taking the British government to the European Court of Human Rights to challenge the legality of the TEMPORA programme. However, it shouldn't be up to the European Court to put this right. We want the UK government to reform the law.
Surely the government can be trusted to behave responsibly?
Even before the Snowden revelations, UK citizens were subject to worrying levels of government surveillance. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) of 2000 led to millions of authorisations for the state to access the private data of UK citizens. In 2012, public authorities submitted 570,135 notices and authorisations for communications data under RIPA, up 15% on the previous year.
The government wanted to go even further. The draft Communications Data Bill of 2012 would have given the Home Secretary the power to require ISPs to retain their customers' communications data. The detail on what the Bill would cover was to be kept secret from the general public. The Bill had the potential to allow the data mining and on the fly profiling of British citizens by a large range of public servants with absolutely no judicial authorisation.
The debate on the draft Communications Data Bill was often hysterical in tone with Home Secretary Theresa May MP claiming:
“Anybody who is against this bill is putting politics before people’s lives… It’s a question of whose side you’re on”
With notable exceptions, such as the blocking of the draft Communications Data Bill, Parliament has shown itself unwilling or inadequate to curtail the powers, or stand up to the demands of the intelligence agencies.
Parliamentary oversight of the intelligence agencies is limited and lacks real independence. Supposedly, Parliament has a committee to hold the intelligence agencies to account, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament (ISC) which was only established in 1994. Yet, appointments to the Committee are made by the Prime Minister. The Committee’s membership is also weighted towards parliamentarians who have worked closely with the intelligence agencies. Of the Committee’s 9 members, there are 5 former ministers from either the Foreign, Home or Northern Ireland Office and a former Head of the Home Civil Service. Nor does the ISC report to Parliament, it is required to report directly to the Prime Minister, who theoretically has the power to redact the ISC’s findings. The ISC will not comment on whether it knew about GCHQ's TEMPORA programme, or any of the other allegations made by Edward Snowden, so we don't know if the intelligence agencies were even being open and honest to Parliament's watchdog.
What does the general public think?
The general public is far ahead of parliament in its concerns over excessive government powers of surveillance. This is the case now and historically has been the case in the UK. In 1972, the Royal Commission on Privacy found that individual privacy was “the social issue rated most important throughout the population.” Among a wide range of threats, none attracted more public concern, fear or hostility that the punitive creation of a national databank. This deep-seated hostility helped prevent the national ID card scheme under the previous government. Opinion polls show public support for whistleblowers and scepticism about intrusive state surveillance. An Angus Reid Global Survey suggested that 60% of British people were supportive of Edward Snowden’s leaks on the PRISM and TEMPORA programmes.
I live abroad, does this only affect the UK?
No, sadly not. GCHQ's operations include tapping cables under the Atlantic oceans to intercept the data of billions of global internet users. GCHQ and the NSA also have the capability to intercept internet data travelling via satellites and routinely make unreasonable requests to global web operators that hold data from users from nearly every country on earth.
Worse still, illiberal regulations are often copied. RIPA was similar to Russia’s controversial SORM legislation of the same year. The normalisation of cable intercepts, mass state data mining or systematic data requests to internet companies by a single Western democracy will legitimise such practices for less democratic states. Unless we speak out on this issue now and push back, the legitimisation of surveillance will be complete and every nation state will attempt to retrieve ever more of our private data.