Following controversy over the use of surveillance powers by local authorities the government has launched a consultation: Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000: Consolidating Orders and Codes of Practice. The government is suggesting that a bit of tinkering with the powers such as "raising the seniority of those who can authorise techniques under RIPA, and increasing the oversight, in local authorities" will make everything okay.
In their consultation document the government wheels out the standard fictitious balancing act between freedom and security used by governments whenever they want to remove freedoms. The introduction states:
Our country has a proud tradition of defending individual freedom – by protecting people’s freedom from those who would do us harm and by safeguarding individuals’ privacy from unjustified interference by the State. The Government is responsible for protecting both types of freedom. In order to do this, we must ensure that the police and other public authorities have the powers they need to carry out their functions. But we must also ensure that those powers are not used inappropriately. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (‘RIPA’) is central to protecting both types of freedom.
Suggesting that RIPA, an act described as a 'Snoopers Charter', is central to protecting privacy is an insult to the intelligence of UK citizens. RIPA has been a controversial piece of legislation since its publication in 2000. Many powers have been added under secondary legislation without proper debate, including The Data Retention (EC Directive) Regulations 2009 made earlier this month which introduced a new mandatory requirement for Internet Service Providers and telecommunications companies to store communications traffic data logfiles for 12 months.
The powers that local councils have abused were themselves bestowed upon them following a consultation back in 2003 called 'Access to Communications Data respecting privacy and protecting the public from crime'. According to the summary of responses that consultation received just 178 responses: "Of those 31 were from commercial organisations, 27 from a variety of interest groups, 52 from individuals and 68 from public authorities".
The government then introduced two pieces of secondary legislation without parliamentary debate: The Regulation of Investigatory Powers (Communications Data) Order 2003 and The Regulation of Investigatory Powers (Directed Surveillance and Covert Human Intelligence Sources) Order 2003.
The latest consultation points out that some covert surveillance does not even require RIPA authorisation as it "does not constitute intrusive or directed surveillance for the purposes of Part II of the 2000 Act and no directed or intrusive surveillance authorisation can therefore be granted". Such activity includes:
• covert surveillance by way of an immediate response to events;
• covert surveillance as part of general observation activities;
• covert surveillance not for the purposes of a specific investigation or a specific operation;
• overt use of CCTV and ANPR systems;
• certain other specific situations.
The RIPA consultation closes 10th July. Details of how to respond can be found here.
The second consultation that has been launched is entitled 'Protecting crowded places' and is described as looking at "how local authorities, businesses, the police and communities can better protect the areas where we live, work and play from the threat of terrorist attack".
In the 'crowded places' consultation documents the government presents CCTV as a terrorism fighting tool. Faced with numerous reports over the last few years that show it an expensive and poor crime prevention or detection tool, the government has decided surveillance cameras are now for counter terrorism.
The beauty of the CCTV and terrorism argument for government is that they claim they can't give us detailed information because of "national security considerations". This excuse was used in the National CCTV Strategy published in 2007, when we were told that the "Counter Terrorist Command of the Metropolitan Police (SO15), the Security Services, Home Office Terrorist Protection Unit, Home Office Scientific Development Branch, Serious and Organised Crime Agency and individuals representing elements of the national transport infrastructure" had been consulted but we couldn't know their views because of "national security considerations".
The main consultation document begins with a predictable chunk of scaremongering about the mortal danger of living in the UK and then looks at various measures that can be used to fight the invisible enemies. Published alongside this is 'Safer Places: A counter terrorism supplement' that is "intended to be a practical guide to designing counter-terrorism measures into new developments". Rather helpfully a crowded place is defined and they even manage to get "terrorist attack" into the definition to instill the phrase with maximum scare value:
A crowded place is a location or environment to which members of the public have access that may be considered potentially liable to terrorist attack by virtue of its crowd density.
The document emphasises the government's pro CCTV view without mentioning any of the inconvenient negative research into its effectiveness. and promotes the use of Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras, which are rapidly popping up all over the country despite the fact that during trials it was found that the DVLA database that the cameras are linked to was only 40% accurate.
The crowded places consultation also closes 10th July. Details of how to respond can be found here.
This government makes great play of consultations and loves to claim that they are listening to the people. In fact the government uses the consultation process to say "you had a chance to complain" - they govern by a system of "we'll do whatever WE like unless you explicitly tell us you don't want us to do it". As a result there is always a great slew of consultations running. According to the consultation website from mySociety Tell Them What You Think currently there are 172 ongoing consultations.
So will responding to a government consultation make any difference? As things stand probably not but if more people took part the government would have to do something - like scrap consultations most likely. However responding to a consultation is at the very least an extremely useful exercise in focusing your own views, someone in government will read it (whatever they may choose to do with it) and via the web it is possible to publish your own consultation response. If anyone does respond to either of these consultations, do send us a copy.