Three parliamentary committees have now reported on the Home Secretary’s draft Investigatory Powers Bill. All three have raised major criticisms of both the powers proposed and the way they are set out.
The first was the report of the Science and Technology Committee , on February 9th, which criticised the lack of clarity in the bill, and highlighted the need for integrity and security in online transactions.
Then we had the Intelligence and Security Committee, with the first report from the new committee. Long derided as weak, too close to and too trusting of the agencies it was supposed to be overseeing, it caused ripples in the establishment with its short and to the point 15-page report.
In that report they savaged the bill, describing it as a “missed opportunity”. They say that “the privacy protections are inconsistent and in our view need strengthening”, and that some of the provisions — equipment interference, bulk personal data sets, and communications data — “are too broad and lack sufficient clarity”. The proposals around communications data are described as “inconsistent and largely incomprehensible”.
Their criticisms are so deep that they express specific concern that it may not be possible to fix the bill by the end of 2016, and suggest the Home Office make sure to take the time to get it right. They say “the draft Bill has perhaps suffered from a lack of sufficient time and preparation and it is important that this lesson is learned prior to introduction of the new legislation.” Given that aspects of this legislation were claimed to be ready to be passed into law in 2012, this is utterly damning.
The largest report was that of the Joint Committee set up specifically to examine this bill, released this morning, February 11th. Whereas the one set up to consider the 2012 draft Communications Data Bill, on which I served, was chaired by the independently minded Lord Blencathra, this one was chaired by a former chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee (from its rather more cosy and quiescent days), Lord Murphy. They also had a very abridged timetable, and say on numerous occasions that they simply didn’t have the time to properly analyse important sections of the legislation.
Despite this, the 182-page report contains some heavy criticism of the bill, in many cases calling on the government to address criticisms or change the legislation, and they specifically call for some powers to be removed from the bill. In a rather derisory remark, they say of the Home Office that:
We recommend that more effort should be made to reflect not only the policy aims but also the practical realities of how the internet works on a technical level.
This is the Home Office’s third effort to get legislation in this area correct. The first effort was slated by a Joint Committee, and the replacement that was then drawn up was not deemed to be good enough even to present to parliament. This third version has now faced a triple whammy of criticism, and it is now clear that the Home Office will have to make substantial changes if it wants to get legislation through.
I hope the Home Office will listen to the criticism, especially from the ISC, and produce a better bill for parliament. If they do, we can be in a better place than the one we have now, where RIPA and other obscure legislation gives widespread uncodified powers in ways that were never intended. If not, I foresee a rocky road for them in parliament, and many embarrassing defeats.
If the Home Office get this right, we can benefit from both better security and better protection for privacy. If they refuse to listen, they have the power to worsen both.