Parliament: All's well with RIPA snooping, no problem here

Home Affairs Committee shrugs shoulders over whistleblower witchhunts

Comment The Investigatory Powers Tribunal yesterday declared GCHQ's mass spying is perfectly lawful – and today the government announces it will not be doing anything about mass-snooping law RIPA either. Trebles all round!

Today the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee (HAC) released its report into the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA). This act allows, among other things, police constables to spy on journalists so they can hunt down and punish whistleblowers for speaking out - the topic of the HAC's review.

It also lets local councils spy on three-year-old children, binmen “incorrectly emptying a dustbin” and, on a similar note, allows the Environment Agency to bug your car.

This is a petty bureaucrat's wet dream of a law. So it comes as no surprise to learn that the HAC's review into how the police use these powers merely recommends that “a full public consultation on an amended RIPA Code of Practice” is carried out.

Moreover, the HAC endorses the "mark-your-own-homework" approach of police forces who use RIPA, praising a system where a police officer signs off on another police officer's application to conduct intrusive surveillance as "a self-correcting process within the system... a safeguard from unnecessary intrusion."

The report does not mention any instances where data was unlawfully acquired or disclosed - despite there being more than half a million applications to snoop on Britons during the year.

In fairness to the HAC, there are three enquiries being carried out into RIPA use and abuse at the moment, not including theirs: one by the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation; one by the Royal United Services Institute; and one by Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee, which latter body some – including your correspondent – argue is a prima facie example of regulatory capture.

Where would we be without Keith Vaz

The notoriously publicity-shy* Keith Vaz MP, chairman of the HAC, seems to have decided his colleagues weren't doing enough headline-grabbing with the report and so inserted a conclusion into the report which began “RIPA is not fit for purpose, with law enforcement agencies failing to routinely record the professions of individuals who have had their communications data accessed under the RIPA.”

This refers to the widespread police practice of spying on journalists by using RIPA powers to circumvent laws which explicitly prevent them from doing so.

However, what starts as a promising recommendation to scrap RIPA and curb the Stasi-like excesses of Britain's bobbies ends pathetically, as Vaz and chums plead with the Home Office “to ensure that law enforcement agencies use their RIPA powers properly.”

Clearly, despite some at the HAC trying to grab the headlines on a slow weekend, the MPs don't want a change to the status quo. Edward Snowden's revelations have ultimately not made a jot of difference to Parliament's attitudes, even as individuals and companies across the Atlantic start fighting back against dragnet surveillance.

Details, details

Some interesting little snippets emerged from the HAC's report. We learned that the Interception of Communications Commissioner's Office (IOCCO) scrutinised all applications for surveillance to be carried out by local councils, compared to last year when just 10 per cent of such applications were overseen by an external body.

514,608 “notices and authorisations” for snooping by the state were issued in 2013. As the report notes, “independent post facto oversight of RIPA is provided by the Interception of Communications Commissioner, Rt Hon Sir Paul Kennedy” and his office. IOCCO has just 12 staff: “nine inspectors, a chief inspector and head of office, and two support staff.”

This would mean that each inspector (including the chief) oversees the equivalent of more than 50,000 applications each during the year, or (based on an 11-month working year of five-day weeks, with one month given over to holidays) 900 per week, or 180 interception requests per day. The mind boggles at the thought of auditing a year's worth of applications in one go from each body, which process takes “three or four days” for a large police force, we're told.

Given the post hoc nature of IOCCO's operations, it's plain that meaningful oversight – in the sense of “what you want to do here is illegal and I'm stopping you before you break the law” - does not happen. Even if prior restraint was part of IOCCO's remit, it would self evidently be understaffed for such a vast undertaking at its current size.

Here's hoping one of the other reviews recommends wholesale reform of RIPA. Don't hold your breath, though. ®


* The Independent newspaper neatly labelled Vaz "the Teflon MP who enjoys the limelight", noting how, among other occasions, he turned up at Luton airport to be photographed with a bewildered Romanian immigrant who had the misfortune of being the first person off a flight from Romania to the UK on 1st January 2014.

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