Friday, June 27, 2008

House Points: The RIPA and council spying

My House Points column from today's Liberal Democrat News.

Serious snooping

Every month local councils launch over a thousand spying operations. They are so keen on the work that they will soon be carrying out more surveillance than the police. A Dorset family was followed for over a fortnight because the county council suspected them of lying on a school application form. Welcome to Labour Britain.

Everyone says such outrages are down to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. So I turned to Hansard and the debates that took place when it was passed in 2000.

If a week is a long time in politics, eight years is several lifetimes in computers. Here is Michael Fabricant speaking in the second reading debate:
"In the United States, 44 per cent. of families have access to the internet, whereas, in the United Kingdom, only 18 per cent. of families are connected. However, with today's announcement that Alta Vista will provide free internet access for only £10 annually … the UK percentage is likely to grow."
In that debate there was no mention of councils. Everyone talked about the importance of the police being able to decrypt the computers of terrorists and paedophiles. (And quite possibly terrorist paedophiles and paedophile terrorists too.)

Were MPs asleep on the job? No, because the extraordinary powers local authorities now enjoy stem not from the 2000 Act but David Blunkett’s decision in 2003 to increase its scope. When the Act was passed only nine organisations, such as the police and security services, were allowed to use it. By the time Blunkett had finished with it that number had risen to 792, including 474 councils.

Blunkett has resigned twice since then, but another Home Office minister implicated in the decision is very much with us. In 2003 critics -- quite rightly, it turned out -- complained the changes would make the Act "a snooper’s charter".

But Caroline Flint was having none of it: "We need to ensure that we strike the right balance between the privacy of the citizen and the need to investigate crime and protect the public. I believe that the new order achieves that balance."

Today Flint is in charge of the eco towns programme, aiming to do to the English countryside what she did to our liberties five years ago.


Anonymous said...

The real joke about the RIPA is not the serious abuse of it, but the ease with which it can be evaded.

Strong modern encryption is effectively uncrackable by any normal means; you simply cannot brute force the code quickly enough to break it inside the lifetime of a person. Similarly systems such as the Truecrypt nested encryption make it possible to comply with demands for encryption keys without handing over critical ones, and without the police being able to tell that you are not complying with their instructions.

Effectively, the RIP Act is just a means to oppress the law-abiding and the stupid lawbreaker, whilst the slightly smarter lawbreaker can simply laugh at the strictures of the Law with impunity.

Even if you do by some chance manage to pin someone down using the RIP Act, you still achieve very little. A paedophile or terrorist would look at the maximum penalties the Law can enforce with the RIP Act and say "Thankyou very much, I'll take that over life on the sex offenders register or house arrest".

This would happen anyway, BTW; the RIP Act isn't the cause of this. No, the problem with the RIP Act is that it can be used against the innocent as a tool of oppression (and is being done, very frequently now).

Anonymous said...

Council snoopers sitting in cars outside peoples' houses is nothing to do with computers or encryption; I think you miss the point.