The House of Commons Select Committee on Home Affairs has published (in print, but , unaccountably in the 21st Century, there is no simultaneous public publication of a web version) a report entitled A Surveillance Society ?.
As with similar Home Affairs Committee reports, they seem to interview and taken evidence from a reasonable selection of people, most of whom are critical of one or more aspects of Government policy. However they then they meekly accept untrustworthy assurances from the likes of Tony "not fit for purpose, but still a Home Office Minister", McNulty, that the Government are "listening" or "tackling" or " reviewing" and that they are "taking things very seriously".
However, none of the RIPA Commissioners i.e. neither the Intelligence Services Commissioner, the right hon. Sir Peter Gibson, nor the Interception of Communications Commissioner, the right hon. Sir Paul Kennedy, nor the Chief Surveillance Commissioner the right hon. Sir Christopher Rose, gave oral evidence or submitted written evidence to this Committee,
This is a major failing of a Report which discusses the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, and the "Wilson Doctrine", and has "Surveillance" in its title.
Anybody expecting firm conclusions and clear recommendations from this Report will, search for them in vain.
The first paragraph of the Conclusions and recommendations :
We reject crude characterisations of our society as a surveillance society in which all collection and means of collecting information about citizens are networked and centralised in the service of the state.
This is a fallacious straw man argument - the point at which a free society is crushed by a surveillance state occurs well before "all" i.e. 100% of such information is snooped on.
A commercial cartel does not need to control 100% of a market to have an effective monopoly - 30 or 50 % can give it a dominant market share, which none of its smaller rivals can compete fairly with. This Labour Government was not elected by even a simple majority i.e. over 50% of the electorate - only about 22% of the electorate voted for them in the 2005 General Election so it is deliberately misleading to claim that only absolutely 100% snooping constitutes a threat to our freedoms and liberties.
Yet the potential for surveillance of citizens in public spaces and private communications has increased to the extent that ours could be described as a surveillance society unless trust in the Government's intentions in relation to data is preserved.
Who is stupid enough to trust this Government with personal data ? We have to grudgingly hand it over, but surely nobody now trusts them with it ? They have a literally appalling record of incompetence and uncaring bureaucratic arrogance in this regard.
Therefore, since we do not trust this Government, we can describe the United Kingdom as a "surveillance society", according to this criterion.
The Home Office in particular and Government in general must take every possible step to maintain and build on this trust: our Report provides a starting point.
Even if the Government "accepts" this Report, and then. , by some miracle, actually properly implements all of this Committee's rather weak recommendations, that will not be sufficient to re-establish public trust.
Here are their vague "Ground rules for Government"
Rules for Government as a whole
The Government should give an explicit undertaking to adhere to a principle of data minimisation and should resist a tendency to collect more personal information and establish larger databases. Any decision to create a major new database, to share information on databases, or to implement proposals for increased surveillance, should be based on a proven need.
[more re-statement of the Data Protection Principles]
Yes, obviously - just as the fundamental, internationally accepted and legislated Principles of Data Protection state.
What the Home Affairs Committee has failed to do is to come up with any practical way of enforcing such fine statements, or to specifically point out where the Government has failed to uphold them.
What happens when, not if, these "explicit undertakings" are ignored or flouted ? Will anyone be criminally prosecuted ? Will any politician actually have the honour to resign ? Will anybody who is a victim of the cock-up, malice or corruption actually be financially compensated? Will anybody actually apologise in public ?
The Information Commissioner should lay before Parliament an annual report on surveillance. The Government should make a formal response to his report, also to be laid before Parliament.
Just like his existing Annual Report, to which lip service is paid, and which is then ignored ?
It is noticeable that the RIPA Commissioners i.e. the Chief Surveillance Commissioner and the Interception of Communications Commissioner do not see their roles as overlapping with that of the Information Commissioner. They recently stated to another Select Committee, that they had very little or no interaction with the Information Commissioner's Office whatsoever.
If this "ground rule" is implemented, then the ICO would have to consult with, or oversee the work of those RIPA Commissioners, who, of, course, are likely to feel miffed that someone who was "only" a solicitor should be overseeing former High Court or Appeal Court Judges
Rules for the Home Office
The Home Office should explicitly address these questions in every proposal for extending or changing its powers and functions with regard to the collection and use of personal information: in the fight against crime: where should the balance be between protecting the public and preserving individual liberty lie? How should the balance shift according t the seriousness of the crime? What impact will there be on the individual and on our society as a whole?
Thee Home Office already claims to be doing this properly, and they are hardly going to admit they they do not do so, unless some sort of powerful political coercion is used.
This "ground rule" is meaningless.
The Home Office should not routinely use the administrative information collected and stored in connection with the National identity Register to monitor the activities of individuals.
How is compliance with this"ground rule" meant to be enforced ?
Why have the Home Affairs Committee not, for example, called for full transparency of the Audit Trail, without any exemptions whatsoever, including any for "national security". Each and every time that a petty official or private sector accesses or "verifies" an individual's NIR data, then that individual should be able to see exactly who has been doing so, when and how often.
This, like itemised phone bills or itemised credit card bills, would strengthen the system against criminal or terrorist abuse of the system
That is currently not the situation according to the Identity Cards Act 2006, which has "exemptions" from what an individual will be allowed to see on the audit trail of their own records.
The Home Office should maintain plans for securing the National Identity Register databases, and contingency plans to be implemented in the event of a loss or theft of biometric information from its databases.
They will no doubt claim that they already have plans for this. These will probably be as pathetic as the HMRC plan that swung into force after the Child Benefit database data loss fiasco, where they set out letters of apology containing, for no good reason, people's National Insurance Numbers, and then managed to have thousands of these sent to the wrong people, thereby making the disaster even worse.
Where is the contingency plan to securely destroy the National Identity Register databases and backups, in the event of a foreign invasion, or civil war or terrorist threat ?
The Home Office should take every opportunity to raise awareness of how and why the surveillance techniques provided for by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act might be used, and should keep under review the effectiveness of the statutory oversight of RIPA powers.
What statutory oversight of RIPA. powers ??
This "statutory" oversight consists of ex-High Court Judges, with limited staff and budgets, who only audit some of the paperwork associated with surveillance under RIPA.
They do not deign to interact with members of the public, on individual complaints, unlike the Information Commissioner.
They do not even get involved with considering how mass surveillance projects might fall foul of the supposed protections and safeguards which they are meant to oversee, and in which they are meant to be expert.
They only produce a censored Annual Report to the Prime Minister, which, scandalously, have been illegally delayed beyond the statutory time limit to be "laid before Parliament" "which is meant to be As soon as practicable after the end of each calendar year"
As stated above, none of the RIPA Commissioners i.e. neither the Intelligence Services Commissioner, nor the Interception of Communications Commissioner, nor the Chief Surveillance Commissioner, gave oral evidence or submitted written evidence to this Committee, which is a major failing of a Report which discusses the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, and the "Wilson Doctrine", and has "Surveillance" in its title.
The Home Office should ensure that any extension of the use of camera surveillance is justified by evidence of its effectiveness for its intended purpose, and that its function and operation are understood by the public.
The Home Office do not have a clue as to even how many CCTV systems there are in the country, not even to the nearest million, let alone any quantitative proof of their effectiveness.
See our recommendations for the regulation of CCTV to enhance privacy and actual effectiveness.
This whole report, which has some interesting evidence, does attempt to sketch out most of the areas of our Surveillance Society, but it fails to come up with any practical policies, or any enforceable checks and balances on the Government and private sector snoopers.