The issue of how much power the state should have, and how far into our private lives it should be allowed to go is a thorny one, which many people feel very strongly about. How much access should we give various bodies, such as the security services? Given that power, what assurances do we have that they won’t abuse them? If we allow them too much do we forsake our liberty or give future users of such powers the ability to start to control our lives. These are all questions that I understand and indeed in some ways share. However, we also have to concede that we live in a dangerous times and with the advent of the internet and various other methods of electronic communication then the law has to respond to them.
We are facing a world where the frequency of cyber-attacks are increasing, a number of significant terrorist plots have been disrupted, and, according to the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre there are 50,000 people downloading indecent images of children. Additionally, organised crime is also turning to using electronic communications. As these crimes have moved online so must some of the forms of detection and surveillance. This means that areas of legislation have to be modified or new legislation brought forward.
Such legislation was introduced into the House last week as the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill. The new Bill is not fundamentally about new powers but more about improving awareness and confidence in the scope of these powers and how they are authorised and overseen. The ability to obtain communications data, intercept communications and obtain computer data is already there but this Bill clarifies which public authorities can use them and for what purpose. It allows the identification of which communications services a person has connected to but not their full internet browsing history and it does not have any new powers with regard to encryption.
Powers will require a warrant and this warrant has to be approved by a judge and he or she will only give that approval when a strong operational case exists and the powers are necessary and indeed proportional. The content of this Draft Bill will be scrutinised by a Joint Committee of Parliament and will also be subject to public consultation prior to a revised Bill being introduced into Parliament in the Spring, but it is important as we see acts of crime and terrorism occurring both at home and abroad, that we enable the people tasked to keep us safe to do that and give them the powers to do so, but with fair and reasonable safeguards, which is the purpose of this draft piece of legislation.