Tuesday 22 April 2014

Snowden allegations stuffed by official report

Supporters of Edward Snowden will probably doing their best to ensure that a report recently published by the Interception of Communications Commissioner is read by as few people as possible.


Because it sets out, in a pretty accessible way, just why it is that we Brits have so little to fear about the capabilities that the Government actually has in terms of abusing our communications records.

I appreciate that this is not a very popular thing to say amongst some circles, but it still needs to be said. And I also appreciate that, as this is a good news story, it’s unlikely to be picked up by the mainstream media channels. But I don’t write this blog to attract the attention of the mainstream media.  

What am I talking about?

I’m talking about Sir Anthony May’s first annual report as the Interception of Communications Commissioner.

It was published on 8 April and largely ignored by the media as it coincided with the news that the European Court of Justice had quashed the Communications Data Retention Directive (2006/24/EC), which had broadly required European Communications Service Providers to retain various types of data for certain periods for the purposes of tackling serious crime. (I’ll address this issue in another blog.)

In a courageous departure from previous practice, Sir Anthony has been more open in communicating with the public on the big issues of the day. Technically, this has been a challenge, as his statutory role is to report to the Prime Minister, rather than offer a running commentary on relevant issues to the media. But it is an incredibly welcome step, as he is someone who actually knows, from firsthand experience, what really goes on. Most people are hazy about the details of this complicated set of laws, and comment from a position of what they perceive to be going on, rather than what has really been going on. He really knows.

Let’s focus on what Sir Anthony has actually said:

“I have full and unrestricted access to all information from public authorities, however sensitive, sufficient for me to be able to undertake my statutory functions.

Public authorities do not misuse their powers under RIPA Part I to engage in random mass intrusion into the private affairs of law abiding UK citizens. It would be comprehensively unlawful if they did.

I am quite clear that any member of the public who does not associate with potential terrorists or serious criminals or individuals who are potentially involved in actions which could raise national security issues for the UK can be assured that none of the interception agencies which I inspect has the slightest interest in examining their emails, their phone or postal communications or their use of the internet, and they do not do so to any extent which could reasonably be regarded as significant.

British intelligence agencies do not circumvent domestic oversight regimes by receiving from US agencies intercept material about British citizens which could not lawfully be acquired by intercept in the UK.”

If I were on the Pulitzer Prize Committee, I might now be having second thoughts about awarding the Washington Post and the Guardian their recent bauble for printing so many of Edward Snowden’s revelations. Yes these stories have stoked up a huge array of global interest in the issue, but they have also indicated the extent to which the relevant authorities have tried so hard to seek assurance from suitably qualified lawyers that whatever was going on was in accordance with local laws.

The outcome (in America, at least) will probably be new laws, further restricting current capabilities of the US law enforcement community. I don’t see the outcome resulting in any officials facing criminal prosecutions for having approved various programmes that may well have involved the collection of communications records.

And the outcome in the UK?

Given Sir Anthony’s views, probably not a lot, as he is already satisfied with many of the controls that are already in place.

On receiving it, the Prime Minister commented:

“The report makes clear the Commissioner’s view that RIPA is fit for purpose, despite advances in technology. He also finds that interception agencies undertake their roles conscientiously and effectively, and that public authorities do not engage in indiscriminate random mass intrusion.

The report also publishes, for the first time, a detailed breakdown by public authority of the number of communications data authorisations and notices issued. I welcome the greater degree of transparency that this report brings, without harming national security, and look forward to the Commissioner’s further work on the volume of requests.

In light of concerns about the activities of the intelligence agencies, the quality of oversight, and a number of public concerns and myths that have developed in the light of media allegations linked to Edward Snowden, I believe his report provides an authoritative, expert and reassuring assessment of the lawfulness, necessity and proportionality of the intelligence agencies’ work. I thank Sir Anthony for the rigour of his scrutiny.”

So, a rigorous scrutiny from the most impartial expert we are likely to get has resulted in a pretty clean bill of health for the law enforcement community.

Not that all parts of the media will necessarily report it that way, though – if they bother to report it at all.