Following Nick Clegg raising the issue of Labour’s love of surveillance (mandatory ID cards, innocent people on DNA database etc etc) at Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday, there’s one particular statistic that is troubling me.
In the last nine months of 2006, the Home Secretary authorised 1,333 warrants to intercept telephone calls or letters. That’s the equivalent of just under five each and every day – with no time off for weekends or holidays and without counting any requests that may have been rejected.
Now – that Home Secretary also has to do the job of running that department (no easy job!) and do all the constituency duties of an MP. So – how much time do you really think goes into those authorisation decisions?
I think this matters for two reasons – first, it raises questions about how well that system might be working (and let’s not forget – if you get a decision wrong, it means the state is unnecessarily spying on the personal conversations of an innocent person) and second – the whole “but the Home Secretary would have to authorise it” defence is increasingly used to justify all sorts of infringements of our civil liberties. It’s not much of a protection is all it really means is a few seconds scanning a memo before saying ‘ok’.
As an ex MI5 boss said on More4 a few days ago, politically how can a minister in a position for protecting the security of the nation ever deny a request? The decision shouldn’t be in the hands of a minister, it should always be in the hands of an array of judges.
Have you considered the possibility that many would have been issued in groups? The police report that a group of ten or twenty are acting suspiciously, the Home Secretary considers whether the evidence justifies taps for the group as a whole, and ten or twenty warrants are issued in one go?Or that for those joining well-known groups, that the Home Secretary has already decided are a matter for concern, that the only evidence to be considered is whether they truly have joined – a far simpler question?But I agree that not much time can be spent on each case. I suspect that the job of a Minister is not to examine and decide on each case personally, but to set up a system and policy in which cases will not get as far as their desk unless they have already been thoroughly examined by staff they trust, and that their job is not to judge each case in detail, but to check compliance and continually refine that policy in light of the hard cases drawn particularly to their attention.That said, I agree with the article that we should all enjoy the same privacy protections as MPs, and that serious crime excepted, surveillance by the state is accepted far too casually.
Lee: it’s a good point about the political pressure.Devshirme: I’m sure that many are bundles like this – but as innocent people can be swept up in a bundle anyway, it’s still making the process very superficial if there are that many to be considered in such a short time.
Innocent people will quite certainly get swept up some of the time. If they had solid evidence that they were guilty already, they wouldn’t be seeking warrants to monitor them, they’d be arresting and charging them. Any measure taken to gather further evidence is inevitably open to the possibility that the evidence will prove them innocent.It’s not reasonable to demand that the police only investigate and thereby intrude on the privacy of people who will eventually turn out to be guilty. They have to intrude upon the innocent too, sometimes, in order to find out. It’s a trade-off between options which all entail harm to the innocent. The problem is always to find the middle way that results in the minimum total harm.I can’t tell from the description how superficial the process really is. I would hope and expect that the police and security services are careful to only ask if they have good reason (they don’t have time to waste monitoring people for the fun of it), that the request will go through lawyers and civil servants who will assess it in detail and make sure any iffy cases get rejected, and that while nominally responsible for each individual case, that the Home Secretary is not spending their £100K+/yr valuable time doing stuff any junior lawyer could do. It might only get half an hour’s personal consideration from the Home Secretary, but it should have had a couple of days or longer on it from several other talented people first to prepare the briefing.Now if you can tell me that this is not the case, and they really do go straight from the MI5 field agent to the Home Secretary’s desk without any other form of assessment, then I agree we would have a right to be concerned. (Especially as negligence about bugging the innocent could as easily mean negligence about not bugging the potentially guilty.) But I can’t tell that simply from the number of warrants issued.I would like to do the Home Secretary the courtesy of requiring as firm evidence of their negligence in this matter as I hope they would require before ordering me bugged.Perhaps you could find out for us how the process actually works? I admit to being curious now.Lee,I understand the possibility of judges doing it had been considered, but judges only interpret the law and guidelines set down by Parliament – Ministers have the democratic mandate to set and modify the guidelines. The argument was that these cases are too complicated for any set of fixed rules to be safely laid down that would cover every conceivable situation.Have you thought about why a Minister could politically only seek to protect the security of the nation? Is it not right that this be so in a Parliamentary democracy? Or should other voices be able to overrule the electorate and the elected?Quis custodiet ipsos custodes, eh?