Theresa May does a Paul Daniels on internet surveillance – but the devil is in the detail

Theresa May has pulled off quite a trick in the last couple of weeks. She built up the impression that the government would store the entire nation’s internet browsing history (which must have had computer storage salespeople salivating heavily) and ban encryption (effectively banning WhatsApp and Snapchat).

But now she’s spun the upturned eggcups around the table and revealed that she won’t be doing that after all, so isn’t she soooo reasonable?

That leaves what she was intending to propose all along in the draft white paper (Investigatory Powers Bill) to be published this week. It’s classic Home Office smoke and mirrors.

Alistair Carmichael has commented:

…the devil will be in the detail and we must wait for the Bill before we can tell whether the Conservatives have really listened.

We will carefully scrutinise Wednesday’s draft bill. In Coalition we blocked the so-called snooper’s charter because it was disproportionate and intrusive, and we would again oppose any measure which would threaten our civil liberties.

…it is disappointing to see Theresa May still won’t commit to judicial authorisation, this is a key reform for Liberal Democrats and we will fight tooth and nail for it.​

The executive signing off their own warrants has no place in a 21st century democracy.”

The latter point is key. As pointed out by Julian Huppert, Clause 94 of the 1984 Telecommunications Act gives the Secretary of State virtually limitless powers to order the telecomms companies to do anything he or she wants them to do.

This bill is an opportunity to, at last, open up government surveillance to proper, open, parliamentary and judicial scrutiny with very clear, transparent rules on what the security services can and cannot do. Making the Intelligence and Security Committee properly accountable to parliament is also a crucially needed step.

In the words of Dame Stella Rimington, former head of MI5:

It’s very important for our intelligence services to have a kind of oversight which people have confidence in. I think that it may mean it is now the time to look again at the oversight.