Friday, 28 June 2013

Parliamentarians ponder PRISM

It was standing room only in Parliament’s Committee Room 11 yesterday afternoon. People had packed the place to learn more about PRISM and what ought to happen next. Most of these people were Open Rights Group members, though. I saw 2 MPs  and a couple of Parliamentary researchers together with some well respected  journalists who were also covering the event. 

What did we learn?

First, that Parliamentarians knew nothing about PRISM (and the Tempora project) other than what they had read in the papers. Second, that they felt they were unlikely to learn anything  of significance from the Foreign Office or from ministers.  This sort of operational stuff is not for them.  Such matters are usually considered by the Intelligence and Security Committee, members of which are appointed by the Prime Minister, and the Committee reports directly to the Prime Minister.

It is the sort of stuff, however, that the independent privacy researcher Caspar Bowden knows a lot about, and he gave the audience a short lecture on what it is, why cloud computing providers ought to be concerned, and why businesses might increasingly look away from the UK and to other countries, particularly Germany, as a safe harbour for their commercial data assets in future. How do you fight cybercrime and protect privacy in the cloud? Ask Caspar, who will point you in the direction of a number of reports he has helped compile.

As David Davies MP started to speak, it became pretty clear to me that, despite his well known views on the issue, no-one from the Home Office has given him a private briefing about the cunning plans that are being hatched behind the scenes to improve the current scrutiny procedures. Quite why no-one from the Home Office has managed to correct his misconceptions about the current scrutiny procedures is a mystery.  I can only conclude that there is a deliberate campaign to keep him in the dark.

Anyway, David warmed up by criticising the current RIPA safeguards, exclaiming that it’s been apparent that there are pretty poor protective measures in place. He commented that “the man at the desk next door” will readily approve applications for communications data, while a judicial figure would more closely scrutinise each request. He ended with with a flourish:  “Parliament ought to rip up RIPA and start again.”

If anyone from the Home Office had managed to brief him in the past six months or so, he would have realised that what is being proposed in the revised (and so far unpublished) version of the Communications Data Bill is, effectively, a complete re-write of the relevant parts of RIPA. There are plans for a radical ramp up of the regulation of the law enforcement authorities that seek communications data. I won’t say any more, otherwise I’ll feel a need to take refuge in a country that welcomes people like Edward Snowden and Julian Assagne.  

I can end on an upbeat note. I left Parliament yesterday with a couple of bottles of House of Commons triple distilled Speaker Bercow’s vodka. Produced in the heart of Cheshire, and bottled by G & J Greenhall, it’s a smooth spirit with no heavy oil aftertaste.  Marvellous! It's just the stuff that Parliament should be selling. Order some from your local MP today.

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