Edward Snowden, a man who's seen the light if ever there was one, was referring to the Conservative government's Investigatory Powers Act, which became law only a few months ago, and which people don't seem unduly worried about. They should be. But let's call it by the name it's picked up along the way - the Snooper's Charter.
“The UK has just legalised the most extreme surveillance in the history of western democracy. It goes further than many autocracies.” Edward Snowden.
Passed into law in November of 2016, and not in the Conservative election manifesto in 2010, the Snooper's Charter is a Stasi-like power grab of extreme proportions and it hardly caused a murmur as it squirmed and slithered its way through parliament. So much for checks and balances. In fact, the Act is basically MI5 and GCHQ demanding a formalisation of powers they've been using illegally for years. But because of poor oversight they've always managed to get away with it.
Let's face it, the security services are the branch of executive that always get what they want without hardly any proper open debate, and yet they are, funded by taxpayers, but not accountable to them. This is a disgusting state of affairs. Of course, this is how government seems to like it. And what this Act does is clear up any ambiguity about MI5 or GCHQ and their data-gathering activities by setting forth the legal powers of surveillance they have. And that means your data is now legally up for grabs, even if you have committed no crime whatsoever. Happy with that situation? No, nor should you be.
Because it's not just the security services that can access your emails and phone data; so can the police, the Home Office, the NHS, the DWP, HMRC, the MoD, National Crime Agency, the SFO, and a host of other bodies. And you're supposed to be comforted by this news. And did I mention they don't need a warrant to access your records? In total, 48 different branches of government can demand access to your information. This information is on record for one year, but I won't be surprised if that's soon broken, as agencies 'forget' to delete the information.
A Failure of Politics
This bill was hastily put together, received very few amendments, and has been much criticised for its less than specific wording. As it stands we can now no longer communicate securely and in private. Surveillance is now the new norm and there is very little we can do. This is nothing less than a catastrophic political failure. The people in parliament seem to have forgotten who serves whom. The Chinese have even cited the Act when defending their own authoritarian legislation. And on a personal note, I was very disappointed to see Labour's rather apathetic opposition to this. They should have been screaming objections from the top of Big Ben; instead we got a few votes against and a whole host of abstentions. Not good enough at all.
But who do we think will be the people caught at the other end of all this? Billionaire tax dodgers? Corporate fraudsters? Somehow I doubt that very much, and whatever safeguards have been built into the legislation will be totally insufficient. They always are. "But we need this sort of legislation to catch Isis killers," goes the refrain, which we know is a lie and a distraction. We swap freedom for security and the wannabe terrorists are laughing as we do their work for them. It's pathetic.
What concerns me the most is that this is never a two-way process; there is never reciprocity. Recently the Home Secretary Amber Rudd demanded access to the encrypted messaging service Whatsapp, simply because some madman went on a killing spree outside Parliament. And for his insane actions, we all have to suffer. I wrote to Rudd, in essence saying she should never be allowed access to such a services, purely because she demands it. She's like a child demanding more attention. If the government were to widen FoI legislation, or get rid of their ludicrous and deeply dangerous obsession with secrecy, then perhaps progress could be made, but then Tories quote Nazi propaganda like "if you've nothing to hide you've nothing to fear".
Sadly it only ever goes one way. Because the government does have stuff to hide. They always do, and are scared of any sort of legislation that threatens their dirty secrets, and yet we're allowed no such safe place to hide. This is morally wrong. And there's a very real possibility that journalists will no longer be allowed to keep their sources anonymous.
This is insanity on a huge scale.
Perhaps it was Clegg and co who were enough of a restraint on Tory authoritarianism to delay laws such as this. Although Blair, as we know, was also keen on blanket anti-terror legislation that was badly worded and badly thought out. But perhaps the rot set in with Google and Facebook and the rest taking our information and selling it to the highest bidder. Government was bound to get in on the act sooner or later. And with changes in Parliament on the way, what other scary measures have they got in store? We should be very grateful to groups like Liberty, who in March launched a legal bid to have the Act overturned, citing human rights concerns. (For some bizarre reason, the Act can also request a person's religion, ethnic origin, sexuality, political leanings and health problems.)
In the meantime, get a VPN and use messaging services such as Signal (Snowden recommends it); and even if you don't want to do any of those things because you regard yourself as a law-abiding citizen who has done nothing wrong, then at the very least, tell MI5 and GCHQ to go and f**k themselves. It's also worth remembering that there's one CCTV camera for every eleven people in the UK. Shocking.
And somewhere a man called Eric Blair is spinning in his grave. (George Orwell, 25 June 1903 - 21 January 1950)
Max Webster is the Editor of Political Provocateur
Click for part two of 'Enemies of Democracy'