Privacy campaigners and even MPs have accused UK political leaders of conspiring to allow spooks to continue to conduct mass surveillance on the public by collecting records of phone calls, text messages and internet usage without a legal basis.
The British government claims it needs to record every phone call and log every text message and email because of terrorism. The Prime Minister David Cameron today said that MI5 and police should immediately be given the legal power to do so in order to stop terrorist plots, citing recent “events in Iraq and Syria” as justification.
The practice under the so called Data Retention and Investigation Powers Bill would require internet and telephone companies cooperate with the authorities. Cameron said he “will not stand by” and watch foreign companies become less willing to share private information with the government.
I'll be explaining today why emergency legislation is needed to maintain powers to help keep us safe from those who would harm UK citizens.
— David Cameron (@David_Cameron) July 10, 2014
In response to the rush to make the practice law, the Open Rights Group condemned the plan, urging that the government knows there is “no legal basis for making internet service providers retain our data so it is using the threat of terrorism as an excuse for getting this law passed”.
The government is arguing that it has to act legislatively because the European court of justice has deemed that the data retention was a breach of privacy rights. In other words what they are already doing is against the law, so the government is attempting to change the law.
“The government has had since April to address the European court of justice ruling but it is only now that organisations such as Open Rights Group threatening legal action that this has become an ’emergency’,” said Jim Killock, executive director of the watchdog group, explaining that the government is desperately attempting to protect the illegal practices that GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 are already engaged in and are on the brink of losing.
“The [European Court] ruling still stands and these new plans may actually increase the amount of our personal data that is retained by ISPs, further infringing on our right to privacy.” Killock said, urging that “Blanket surveillance needs to end. That is what the court has said.”
Meanwhile, some MPs are speaking out against the move further toward mass surveillance. Labour MP Tom Watson, who was instrumental in exposing phone-hacking by British based tabloid journalists, said he had “not seen the legislation and that’s my concern”.
“This is a secret deal between party leaders.” Watson noted, arguing that the government is pushing it through without the oversight of elected representatives.
“There hasn’t been a bill published and yet we find out this morning, when parliament is on one-line whip and MPs are in their constituencies, that next week they will railroad emergency legislation to put right a decision made by the European court of justice that the current legislation was beyond human rights law. Now that doesn’t seem right to me.” Watson said.
“There are hundreds of thousands of people out there very concerned about this particular policy issue. They’ve not seen this bill either, but it doesn’t really matter this year because there’s been a deal done between the three parties and it’ll be railroaded through.” Watson urged, calling the move a “stitch-up”.
“No one in civil society has got a chance to be consulted.” he added, declaring “If you’re an MP you probably shouldn’t bother turning up to work next week because what you are thinking doesn’t really matter.”
The Liberal Democrats, currently a part of the coalition government, have thrown their weight behind the plan for mass surveillance, arguing that because the legislation has a sunset clause in 2016, it doesn’t amount to a so called ‘snooper’s charter’. However, the US Patriot Act, sections of which are now used to justify mass government surveillance in the US, also had a sunset clause when it was passed in 2001. The bill simply keeps being renewed each year by the government in a seemingly never ending process.
The move toward mass government surveillance of the entire population in the UK has mirrored the same effort in the USA.
Back in 2008, the Britsh government announced its intention to create a massive central database, gathering details on every text and e-mail sent, every phone call made and every website visited by everyone in the UK.
The programme, known as the “Interception Modernisation Programme”, allows spy chiefs at GCHQ, the government’s secret eavesdropping agency, the centre for Signal Intelligence (SIGINT) activities, to effectively place a “live tap” on every electronic communication in Britain in the name of preventing terrorism.
Following outcry over the announcement, the government suggested that it was scaling down the plans, with then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith stating that there were “absolutely no plans for a single central store” of communications data.
However, as the “climbdown” was celebrated by civil liberties advocates and the plan was “replaced” by new laws requiring ISPs to store details of emails and internet telephony for just 12 months, fresh details emerged indicating the government was implementing a big brother spy system that far outstrips the original public announcement.
The London Times published leaked details of a secret mass internet surveillance project known as “Mastering the Internet” (MTI).
Costing hundreds of millions in public funds, the system was stealthily implemented by GCHQ with the aid of American defence giant Lockheed Martin and British IT firm Detica, which has close ties to the intelligence agencies.
A group of over 300 internet service providers and telecommunications firms attempted to fight back over the radical plans, describing the proposals as an unwarranted invasion of people’s privacy. Further government legislation, such as the ‘Digital Economy Bill‘ was passed in an effort to provide government more power over internet providers.
Currently, any interception of a communication in Britain must be authorised by a warrant signed by the home secretary or a minister of equivalent rank. Only individuals who are the subject of police or security service investigations may be subject to surveillance.
If the GCHQ’s MTI project becomes officially protected under law, black-box probes could be placed at critical traffic junctions with internet service providers and telephone companies, allowing eavesdroppers to instantly monitor the communications of every person in the country without the need for a warrant.
GCHQ also has a program known as Global Telecoms Exploitation (GTE), aimed at scooping up as much online and telephone traffic as possible. Both the GTE and MTI programs were exposed in more detail last year by information leaked by Edward Snowden.
Even if you believe GCHQ’s denial that it has any plans to create a huge monitoring system, the current law under the RIPA (the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act) allows hundreds of government agencies access to the records of every internet provider in the country.
In publicly announced proposals to extend these powers, firms have been asked to collect and store even more vast amounts of data, including from social networking sites such as Facebook.
Future plans include giving every internet user a unique ID code, officially allowing all their data to be stored in one place. Government agencies such as the police and security services will have access to the data should they request it with respect to criminal or terrorist investigations.
Such a network is akin to a full on big brother type spy system, and would obliterate privacy, a fundamental right under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The mass government surveillance movement was dubbed as ‘the snooper’s charter’, and was condemned by both the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrat Party when they were in opposition.
However, it is a different story now they are in power. When they had the chance last year to shut down the snooper’s charter for good, Conservatives in government instead intentionally left the door open for a revival of the legislation.
Privacy campaigners and whistleblowers, including Snowden have described Britain’s GCHQ as even worse than their American counterparts when it comes to the push toward mass surveillance.
“It’s not just a US problem. The UK has a huge dog in this fight,” Snowden told the Guardian. “They [GCHQ] are worse than the US,” he added, claiming that GCHQ “produces larger amounts of metadata than NSA”.
Steve Watson is a London based writer and editor for Alex Jones’ Infowars.com, andPrisonplanet.com. He has a Masters Degree in International Relations from the School of Politics at The University of Nottingham, and a Bachelor Of Arts Degree in Literature and Creative Writing from Nottingham Trent University.