Theresa May, the home secretary, presented the draft Investigatory Powers Bill to the House of Commons last week.
Her speech was peppered with “transparency”, “oversight” and “double locks”. It seemed to hypnotise sections of the press.
In files leaked by Edward Snowden in 2013 the spies wrote, “Our main concern is that references to agency practices (ie the scale of interception and deletion) could lead to damaging public debate.”
They needn’t have worried. A few spy-sponsored tours of the GCHQ spy centre and a new Bond movie helped the press relax.
MI5 chief Andrew Parker denied the spooks were seeking “sweeping new intrusive powers”. At one level this is true.
The bill is about legitimising dodgy practices which have been taking place already.
Successive governments have let the intelligence agencies harvest vast amounts data—phone calls, text messages and emails.
Currently GCHQ eavesdrops on calls made by American citizens and the US National Security Agency monitors calls made by British citizens.
This allows each government plausibly to deny it has tapped its own citizens’ calls.
The government is now being “open” and placing bulk data collection on a legal footing.
Ministers will have to get a “judicial commissioner’s” approval if they want the police or intelligence services to hack phones or laptops, or check online activity.
The judicial commissioner’s “authorisation” is a rubber-stamping exercise, and can be by-passed if the situation is deemed “urgent”.
Internet providers will have to store our browsing history for a year. The government claim that this will not mean looking at web pages people view.
In fact the data covered by the bill means it will be possible to tell which web pages people look at.
The home secretary would be able to force companies to put in “back doors”—a means of access that bypasses security—to their software.
Revealing the existence of those back doors is a criminal offence punishable by up to 12 months in prison. So it will be easier to spy on people—and a criminal offense to tell anyone about it.
Banal as it was predictable, Tory MP Richard Graham said, “If you’ve nothing to hide then you’ve nothing to fear.”
In truth the bill is a rather grubby attempt to give the spooks more powers.