Monday, 8 July 2013

Labour: Liberty, Security - and the (new ) Comms Data Bill

If you had gone down to the Royal Festival Hall today you would have had a bit of a surprise. The Rt Hon Yvette Cooper, Shadow Home Secretary, was on hand to explain how keen the Labour Party has become to work constructively with the Conservatives in the Coalition Government to ensure that a revised Communications Data Bill manages to be considered by Parliament in the not too distant future. Yes, there will be measures that the Liberal Democrats (and many other members of the House of Lords) will resist (and defeat), but a lot of non-controversial proposals - as outlined in the Joint Parliamentary Committee’s report on the Government’s first attempt to draft a revised RIPA proposal - ought to sail through.

We must have proper checks and balances in play. And a system of regulation which reflects that the internet has made us think in different ways about data we generate when using the web. We need to review what now comprises our most sensitive personal information. Official access to the more sensitive elements  - which shed light on the most intimate aspects of our lives - must be carefully considered before such access is authorised. Official contacts with activists, perhaps carried out covertly, will require the most careful scrutiny before such applications and operations are approved. Interception Commissioners must have their roles changed to ensure that they play a much more engaging role with the general public. If the Government thinks that it is not appropriate for anything other than a vague parliamentary debate about the maintenance of “capabilities”, then it should think again.  Where is the Intelligence Surveillance Commissioner when the press are baying for senior heads to interview? Your guess is as good as mine.

So, should Labour win the next General  election,  it’s possible that that some very interesting changes will be considered in the oversight of the suits – the select group of Commissioners whose responsibility lies in regulating various areas of the UK's surveillance infrastructure. Too many of their reviews are currently paper based. New commissioners will be primed to speak to the media on a much wider range of surveillance issues. These days, there are so many different angles to stories that even I’m being drawn into making public comments for the media on cybercrime and RIPA these days. Watch out Radio 4 and Newsnight. I’m heading their way, soon.  What Yvette is suggesting was that a far more fundamental review of surveillance commissioning should  occur. Now, where did we put all those papers for the creation of an Inspectorate General?

Yvette was kind enough to mention the Communication Data Bill a number of times in her speech. This stuff is important to her – and she is determined that the conversations currently underway between Home Office officials and the favoured CSPs won’t form the only consultation model in town. Conversations should also be taking place with representatives of civil society. Home Office officials should continue to talk to the Open Rights Group, Privacy International, Liberty, and No2ID. Such officials will need to cast away their suits and ties, and grow beards and and start dressing much more casually to ingratiate themselves with  Demos and other think tanks, to understand what other types of "real people" feel about this stuff . 

It was a good speech. Yvette knows how to take a text that has been written for her and turn it into an engaging review of these broad topics. She probably saw me (as did her speechwriter) nodding quite vigorously as she went through what a revised Communications Data Bill  is likely to contain, given its drubbing at its first outing. Then I had a few quiet words with her after the event to discuss next steps, etc.

So if you see Yvette and Theresa May enjoying discussions over a posh burger some time in the summer, you may know what its all about.

I do enjoy working in this particular policy area. And I don't care which side I influence, so long as I nudge all responsible stakeholders in the direction of the sensible and pragmatic policies they really ought to be implementing, not just considering.