UK spying bill is King George III 2.0

The Electronic Frontier Foundation's Legal Director Cindy Cohn was in the UK for the launch of the Snooper's Charter (AKA the Draft Communications Data Bill), and she provides some much-needed global context on the totalitarian slide of the United Kingdom.

This isn’t the first time that an Executive has seized the general authority to search through the private communications and papers without individualized suspicion. To the contrary, the United States was founded in large part on the rejection of “general warrants” – papers that gave the Executive (then the King) unchecked power to search colonial Americans without cause. The Fourth Amendment was adopted in part to stop these “hated writs” and to make sure that searches of the papers of Americans required a probable cause showing to a court. Indeed, John Adams noted that “the child Independence was born,” when Boston merchants unsuccessfully sued to stop these unchecked powers, then being used by British customs inspectors seeking to stamp out smuggling.

The current warrantless surveillance programs on both sides of the Atlantic return us to the policies of King George III only with a digital boost. In both, our daily digital “papers” — including intimate information such as who we are communicating with, what websites we visit (which of course includes what we’re reading) and our locations as we travel around with our cell phones — are collected and subjected to some sort of datamining. Then we’re apparently supposed to trust that no one in government will ever misuse this information, that the massive amounts of information about us won’t be subject to leak or attack, and that whatever subsequent measures are put into place to government access to it by various government agencies will be sufficient to protect our privacy and ensure due process, fairness and security.

UK Mass Surveillance Bill: The Return of a Bad Idea

A reminder: the Open Rights Group is running national workshops on how to talk to your MP about this, and there's a petition you can sign.


  1. Well that’s ‘Game Over’ if you ever had political ambitions – or participate in an inconvenient environmental campaign, comment on official corruption, or enter a complaint about the Police.

    This material will be leaked to the gutter press – most certainly, environmental campaigners and their supporters, as this strand of politics has been smeared as terrorism and domestic subversion – and I doubt that embarrassing a paid servant of News International will pass without retribution.

    There’s definitely something in your web history: sexual material you’ve browsed or glanced at that can be luridly displayed in the press or posted out to all the parents at your local school; off-colour jokes; intimate correspondence; and there are people close to you with unconventional sex lives or an embarrassing medical history, who can be paraded in public, shamed and ridiculed and hounded, just to prove that you should keep your head down and shut up.

    I wonder how much a fundamentalist church would pay for identifying records allowing them to target gay people, or women who’ve sought advice on abortion? What material will *they* circulate, and to whom?

    A rule of thumb: centrally-collected private information exists only to be misused. And in London, there is no concept of sexual blackmail as a criminal offence: merely a uniformed force of paid agents for the gutter press, untouchable, perjorious, and vindictive.

    The innocent have nothing to fear, providing they are neither inconvenient nor interesting.

      1. State sanctioned anything always appears, weirdly, legal. It’s almost as if los poderosos are above the law.  Can’t explain it.

        V. Odd.

      2. Blackmail is a criminal offence, even in the UK.

        …But some are more equal under the law than others: newspapers are free to use it with impunity – sexual blackmail, medical details, anything goes: “We’re running the story tomorrow, sign an exclusive interview agreement and we promise we won’t be quite as nasty about it as we *could* be…”

        Now imagine being a celebrity, under a blackmail threat – not necessarily a kiss-and-tell from a prostitute working with a journalist (hint: injuctions have been obtained against publication, with limited success, but no newspaper has ever been fined for one of these criminal offences) – imagine, if you will, that someone’s got something confidential on your relatives, or from your medical records.

        Would anyone be stupid enough to take it to the Metropolitan Police, knowing that so many of them – up to and possibly above Superintendant level – are taking money from Murdoch?

        Actually, I’d be uneasy about a corrupted Police force getting anything confidential – never mind embarrassing or damaging – on me, celebrity or not; what if there are worse things that an ‘honest’ officer could do, if honesty means ‘not selling information to the press?’ The bar for integrity is set very low indeed, if that’s the worst that they can get away with: but there are far worse things than selling saucy titbits for cash, in a body of men who know that deaths in custody – some of which are surely murder, or triable as such – have never been and never will be prosecuted, and who have proven time and time again that they have a de facto privilege of perjury with impunity.

        I fear an honest copper even more than I might fear a well-paid press informer with a warrant card: the latter can be bought (and has been) ; the former may well have motivations that I cannot appeal or pander to, no matter how white and wealthy I may be. What if he hates my gay or Jamaican or Moslem acquaintances, merely for existing, and has internalised this hate as an unshakeable certainty that they are obviously guilty of something… If only I can be persuaded to tell him exactly what that is?

        I will note, in passing, that Blackmail is perfectly legal as a persuasive tactic against suspects in a criminal investigation: and guess who decides that you’re a suspect? An honest officer is, almost by definition, not a criminal.

        I could say “The innocent have nothing to fear” but anyone who isn’t frightened by the tactics and actions – legal and illegal – of the Met is ill-informed and dangerously deluded.

        Your reply referred specifically to blackmail, and I have drifted off that topic: suffice to say that blackmail is illegal by the letter of the law, in a country where the law does less than you would hope to protect the citizen against the powerful.

  2. This is why we can’t have sustainable empires. The idiots in charge get all righteous about sticking their nose in your business. Its enough to drive the most law abiding citizen into the arms of anarchy. Give it a hundred years or so and its gonna be the bloody Dark Ages again.

  3. That remind me – the bill applies in Scotland. If it becomes an issue in the Scottish Independence debate, that might worry Cameron.

    1. An independent Scotland should worry him anyway. We could decline to arrest or extradite those who share information about the actions of his (and previous) government that would otherwise be buried for 30 years under the UK official secrets act.
      Then we get to see how they like it when people can read *their* dirty secrets. If they have nothing to hide, they should be totally OK with this.
      And national security doesn’t weigh very heavy against the public interest when the nation concerned no longer exists as a political entity.

  4. Scotland already *does* pay its own bills, they are a net contributor to the UK and the myth of our subsidizing them is just that. The subsidy junky in the UK is London.

    Meant that to be in reply to the thread about Scotland/independence. Sorry!

    1. Er no.  Scotland can be argued to be a net contributor to the Exchequer if you take oil revenue into account (which would need some economic reforms to really be the case), but it’s far from cut and dry.

      On the other hand London, the South East and East Anglia are the only current net contributors to the economy in the whole UK:

      “The growth of employment since 1993 means that London now employs 4.4 million people, nearly 15% of the UK total. As a result of relatively high productivity in the capital, London’s contribution to UK GDP is even more significant: we estimate overall gross value added in London in 2004 to have been £181 billion (in 2002 prices), nearly 19% of the UK total.”

      I’m all for Scottish independence, and it’s definitely both economically viable and desirable, but the tired “London leeches from us!” line is demonstrably false and only undermines your cause.

  5. From the draft bill’s introduction in the PDF,

    Communications data is information about a communication. The term is carefully defined in existing legislation…[it] is very different from communications content – for example, the text of an email or a telephone conversation… Companies providing communications services are currently required by law to store some communications data which they have business reasons to generate or process. They are not required to retain data which they do not need….Although some internet data is already stored by communication service providers, other data is neither generated nor obtained because providers have no business need for it…. To address this growing gap, the proposals set out here will require some communications service providers to obtain and store some communications data which they may have no business reason to collect at present. Nothing in these proposals will authorise the interception of the content of a communication. Nor will it require the collection of all internet data, which would be neither feasible, necessary nor proportionate.

    which I don’t necessarily agree with. But it also doesn’t sound at all like what I’ve read so far. No centralized database. No mandated storage of content beyond what is already stored. The big change is mandated storage of data which is clearly defined to exclude content (so web-browsing history /is/ included). All being the responsibility of organizations whom already may have some statutory requirements to store equivalent other information already. Not government.

    Did I miss something important? It is important so I’d like to know. A

    1.  In order to actually do all that, they are going to build infrastructure capable of mass surveillance, and promise not to use it as such. And the bill provides that the home secretary can modify it using secondary legislation.

    1. The boys in blue would like to invite you for an interview at the station regarding your plan to force your son to marry a rosebush. Forced marriages are against the law.

  6. It would be poetic justice if every time the Crown tried doing away with warrants, another of their holdings would run the other direction screaming independence. Good luck, Scotland.

  7. Humanity tends to lean towards authoritarianism –  social hierarchies built into our DNA and social ancestry.

    We’re just monkeys with a penchant for a particular social structure, same as all the rest.

    Maybe we’ll evolve out of it. In a few hundred thousand years.

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