Tribune 26/1/2001

Total Surveillance

Glyn Ford's review of Total Surveillance (Tribune, 12th Jan) neglected to mention that Britain now has the most draconian snooping laws in the world. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Act 2000 can compel any Internet Service Provider to install a "black box" to relay domestic Internet wiretaps direct to the MI5 building.

Even if you are not suspected of any crime, failure to disclose a computer password to any public authority is punished with two years imprisonment. Breaching a lifetime gagging order "to protect investigative methods" means a further five years in prison. The only redress is from a complaints tribunal that can hear secret evidence which cannot be cross-examined.

For the first time, super-computer trawling by GCHQ of the communications of UK citizens is legalized by a new kind of warrant, that can be turned against "a large number of persons in pursuit of a common purpose".

Baffled MPs swallowed the line that these powers are necessary for catching drug dealers and paedophiles, even though they are full of technical loopholes, but leave every Internet user literally with fewer civil rights and safeguards than a terrorist suspect.

Even more staggeringly, a detailed report from the police and intelligence agencies to the Home Office outlined plans for a seven-year computerised archive logging all phone calls, e-mails and web browsing. When online, this amounts to surveillance of your stream of consciousness without a warrant.

Everyone wants effective, proportionate, and accountable cyber-policing, but the complexity of the subject coupled with a law-and-order arms race between the two parties has resulted in a harsh but ineffective law that infringes basic human rights. It needs urgent reform.