The Investigatory Powers Act has passed through Parliament and will soon be law. It provides the UK intelligence agencies and police with what the Guardian‘s Ewen MacAskill described as “the most sweeping surveillance powers in the western world” and it passed into law with “barely a whimper, meeting only token resistance over the past 12 months from inside parliament and barely any from outside”. The Bill’s relatively serene passage through the legislature surprised many in government, and was probably partly due to the fact that the Labour party, under Jeremy Corbyn, seems largely uninterested in its responsibilities as the official opposition.
It’s not all bad news: the Act brings under explicit oversight a whole range of activities that were hitherto carried out under obscure, possibly dodgy, legal provisions and with totally inadequate oversight. So at least you could say that, at last, the activities of the secret state are all in a single piece of legislation.
On the other hand, the powers granted by the Act in relation to data retention are indeed sweeping, and include some new powers to conduct what is euphemistically termed ‘Equipment Interference’ — which is essentially legalised hacking; their inclusion in the Act is in effect an implicit admission that GCHQ and the security services have been doing this stuff anyway for some time.
The Act confirms that the British state’s appetite for fine-grained communications data seems insatiable and is destined to grow. Confronted with this new reality, one celebrated ex-spook once remarked that we are “a keystroke away from totalitarianism”. What he meant is that the information resources now available to states would be a godsend to an authoritarian regime that wasn’t restrained by constitutional niceties, civil liberties or human rights.
When one puts this point to spooks and government officials, however, their instinctive response is to pooh-pooh the idea. It may be technically true, they say, but — come on! — we live in a democracy and the chances of an authoritarian bully gaining power in such a polity are, well, infinitesimal.
Well, that was then and this is now. An authoritarian bully with no apparent respect for the rule of law will become president of the United States on January 20. Given that the British state has a long history of close co-operation with the US national security state, it’s possible that the new powers conferred on British agencies by the Investigatory Powers Act might mean that personal data on British subjects will be slipping noiselessly into the computerised maw of President Trump’s newly-energised security services. If this country had a functioning parliamentary opposition maybe Mrs May’s Bill would have had a rougher passage, and the Act would have been less sweeping. But the opportunity to rein in the surveillance state has been missed for a generation.