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[OP-ED]: My Government's Commitment to the Surveillance State – the UK Queen's Speech

BY Jon Worth | Monday, May 14 2012

The Queen's Speech is closest the UK has to some kind of State of the Union address. In the speech, delivered by the Queen in all her archaic royal splendor, the government of the day sets out its legislative agenda for the coming year. Press and politicians alike analyze every line of the short speech, working out what was and was not included, and hence what will be the government's priorities for the next 12 months.

For the sake of the future of net surveillance in the UK, this was the crucial sentence in the speech Queen Elizabeth II delivered on May 9 at the Palace of Westminster:

“My government intends to bring forward measures to maintain the ability of the law enforcement and intelligence agencies to access vital communications data under strict safeguards to protect the public, subject to scrutiny of draft clauses.”

This refers to the draft Communications Data Bill that will be presented to Parliament. No complete draft of the legislative text exists yet, but an outline is available here. We hence know about the crucial provisions, and a debate about these has been raging for the past few months.

The bill is likely to propose that the quantity and scope of the data that UK based communication service providers (CSPs) are required to retain on their customers' Internet use must be considerably increased. Importantly, third party data – customers' use of Gmail for example, even if BT or Virgin is their CSP – is to be included in the data that has to be retained.

This poses two major problems. The first is the marked shift from monitoring of communications on the basis of risk to the indiscriminate stockpiling of personal data. The second is the definition of what data can be accessed, and by whom. On the second issue, the government is keen to stress that the content of e-mails and Skype conversations will not be monitored without a legal warrant having been granted, and that data will only be retained for a 12-month period.

Also, in a crucial concession, the Bill will undergo full parliamentary scrutiny, a point welcomed by Julian Huppert, a vocal critic of the proposals within the Liberal Democrats, the junior government coalition party. Huppert has also raised the technical issue of whether retention of the data in the way the government proposes is even technically feasible.

Security vs. civil liberties in party politics

While the debate about the Bill itself continues, it is worth taking a step back and setting this issue in the wider context of UK coalition politics, and the UK's complex position on security versus civil liberties.

A similar proposal to widen data surveillance was proposed by the Labour government in 2009, and was partially dropped due to pressure from the Conservatives, then in opposition.

The problem is that both of the UK's major parties are intensely nervous about security issues. The Conservatives have traditionally taken a hard line in this field, while Labour hardened its stance since Tony Blair's famous “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” line from the party's 1997 manifesto, and even now Labour struggles to rediscover a liberal approach to security questions.

The Liberal Democrats were the staunch defenders of civil liberties, but since their participation in coalition government with the Conservatives, their determination on the issue has waned. The Minister responsible for the Communications Bill, Theresa May, is a Conservative and this bill is clearly designed to appeal to traditional law-and-order supporters of her party. May's defense of the law is that it could help police investigate crimes such as pedophilia. If Huppert and others within the Liberal Democrats are to really take the fight to May on this issue it could put the coalition government in danger, and with the Liberals already tanking in the polls it is highly unlikely they would put the government's future in danger on this issue.

This all means that pressure groups such as Liberty and the Open Rights Group will be the main voices opposing the government's plans, unlike the situation in many other European countries where rights and responsibilities online form a central part of everyday party political debate. Mass citizen mobilization against the measures is also unlikely in the UK, a country where even the debate about ACTA has barely entered the public consciousness.

The current discussions feel very distant from the halcyon early days of the coalition government, with David Cameron and Nick Clegg asserting their commitments to roll back the 'Big Brother' state, and welcome commitments from Francis Maude and the Cabinet Office to open data. Yet we now have Rohan Silva of Downing Street telling SXSW that too much openness is a bad thing and even fears that the Freedom of Information Act is under threat.

It almost feels like the period just prior and just post the 2010 election was an aberration, and that British politics is resorting to traditional form on these issues. In the debate on the relationship between security and civil liberties, online just as offline, it is the former that wins.

Jon Worth blogs about the EU, UK politics, and technology. He is also an EU affairs expert.