The country's most senior prosecutor has intervened in the gathering storm over the forthcoming Communications Data Bill by urging "legislative restraint" in coming months.
Home Secretary Jacqui Smith announced last week that laws will be open to consultation in the new year. The security services are demanding massively expanded internet surveillance powers.
Outgoing Director of Public Prosecutions Sir Ken Macdonald warned in a speech yesterday that expansion of state snooping powers was likely to be irreversible. "They will be with us forever," he said. "And they in turn will be built upon.
"So we should take very great care to imagine the world we are creating before we build it. We might end up living with something we can't bear."
Sir Ken didn't mention the Communications Data Bill by name, but it was clear its proposals, reported here, were among his targets. He said: "Technology gives the state enormous powers of access to knowledge and information about each of us, and the ability to collect and store it at will. Of course, modern technology is of critical importance to the struggle against serious crime. Used wisely, it can protect us."
Jacqui Smith said last week that she wants an open, reasoned debate to build consensus around the Bill. Two days later transport Secretary Geoff Hoon argued that not building a government database of all UK communications data would grant terrorists "a licence to kill".
Sir Ken said: "We need to take very great care not to fall into a way of life in which freedom's back is broken by the relentless pressure of a security state."
Summing up his five-year tenure as Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir Ken claimed world-beating anti-terror conviction rates, while having resisted the "paraphernalia of paranoia" such as special courts and vetted judges. The full text of the speech is here.
Also yesterday, the Information Commissioner's Office repeated its call for a full public debate around communications data. A spokesperson said: "The Commissioner warned that it is likely that such a scheme would be a step too far for the British way of life. Creating huge databases containing personal information is never a risk-free option as it is not possible to fully eliminate the danger that the data will fall into the wrong hands. It is therefore of paramount importance that proposals threatening such intrusion into our lives are fully debated." ®