Monthly Archives: June 2008

Government wins vote on 42 day limit

“For the House of Commons to vote in this way is replacing the work of the Courts … The reason we put people before the courts is because they are independent – the juries independent, but if you have a vote in the House of Commons [to extend detention for suspects] is a corruption of a basic principle  which we have boasted of for so many hundreds of years.”

Tony Benn former MP, 11th June 2008, speaking on BBC NEWS after the results of the vote.

37 Labour MPs joined forces with Conservative and Lib Dems to vote against the proposals was not enough to stop the Government winning the vote on extending the maximum time police can hold terror suspects to 42 days. The bill was passed by 315 MPs to 306 votes, a majority of just 9 votes.

Veteran former Labour MP Tony Benn said: “I never thought I would be in the House of Commons on the day Magna Carta was repealed.” He also called it “Bin Laden’s biggest victory”, adding that it is a “bad law, bad for us, bad for the people and for Britain’s position in the world”. He said he hoped it would be overturned in the House of Lords. Mike Blakemore of Amnesty International says the government’s concessions to win the vote on terror detentions are “essentially meaningless”.

“Only Clauses 1, 9 and 29 of the Magna Carta remain unrepealed. Clause 29 says that no freeman shall be taken or imprisoned or have his liberties removed but by lawful judgment of his peers. Detention for 42 days without trial essentially abrogates this clause and removes 800 years of a basic civil liberty: the right to due process.”
Matt Platts, Reading, UK, BBC NEWS website


42 days: the meaning of life…

United Kingdom MPs are about to vote on the law to extend the time police can hold terror suspects without charge. 

And there in is the real issue for those who appose this measure, the words ‘without charge’. This point seems to have been missed by the 75% or so of the populous who have been polled and found to be broadly in favor if extending detention from 28 to 42 days. The Government says that is in the best interests of protecting the safety and security of the United Kingdom, but so far no one has explained just how extending detention without charge will do just that.

Detention Before Charge?

For centuries we have relied on the legal principle of ‘Habeas Corpus’ (Latin for ‘We command that you have the body’.) This is the name of a legal action, or writ, through which a person can seek relief from unlawful detention of themselves or another person. The writ of habeas corpus has historically been an important instrument for the safeguarding of individual freedom against arbitrary state action and right to petition for a writ of habeas corpus has long been celebrated as the most efficient safeguard of the liberty of the subject.

Detention without charge was first enacted in the 1970s as a response to republican terrorism under anti-terrorist legislation from the original enactment of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1974 (repealed). The Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1989 (repealed) contained a provision permitting the detention by the police of a person arrested on suspicion of involvement in acts of terrorism for a period of up to 48 hours following his arrest by a police constable, and for a further period of up to five days if the Secretary of State approved such an extension. This power was available to police officers anywhere in the UK. These powers have since been extended to 28 days of detention and now the proposal of 42 days.

Many people have said it is a good idea, we should ‘stop the terrorists’ and so on. All of this sounds wonderful, but remember this is without charge while the evidence is being found. What if by some mistake, or even by deliberate intention, YOU are held as a suspected terrorist.

But, you say, that can’t happen! Can it? Could it? The introduction of the Terrorism Act 2006 states that is ‘An Act to make provision for and about offences relating to conduct carried out, or capable of being carried out, for purposes connected with terrorism’, but doesn’t define terrorism. In recent years Police enforcement of the anti-terror laws has created some unintended consequences, including the shooting of the innocent Jean Charles de Menezes as he ran to catch a train. Others are just nutty, and the government’s proposals to deal with terrorism seem more designed to combat civil liberties than terror.

  • A 34-year-old woman arrested for walking to work on a bike path, instead of cycling, in an area secretly designated a “designated area” and held under the “anti-terrorism act.”
  • An 82-year-old man (and a younger man who jumped in to assist him) tossed out of the Labour conference for heckling Jack Straw.
  • A French journalist held for hours after wearing a bulky jacket and neglecting to make eye contact.
  • My own experience on the DLR, where a tourist was surrounded by police officers after taking videos.
  • The government’s proposal to increase the length of time a suspected terrorist can be held without charges, from 14 days to three months.
  • The establishment of a “no protest” zone which includes a vast swath around Westminster.

(And these are just the incidents I remember; no doubt there are more.)

Why should we worry? The terrorists are out to get us; what’s the loss of a few civil liberties? We’re all willing to pay a price, aren’t we, for security?

When police are allowed to arrest anyone, anytime, and conveniently mark it up to the anti-terrorism laws, we’re all in danger, even if we didn’t do the heckling or walk down a path intended for bicyclists. Unfortunately, draconian laws don’t make us safer: When a young man is arrested for “walking while Muslim” and sent to jail for three months without charges being filed, and his family is visited by Muslim extremists trying to convince them the real enemy is the British government, and his little brother listens to their arguments, and he joins a terrorist cell to “get even”…then we’re not safer.

Criticism for ‘UK database’ plan

By Jane Wakefield 
Technology reporter, BBC News

Newspaper headline about data losses

The government has made headlines for data failures

Plans for a super-database containing the details of all phone calls and e-mails sent in the UK have been heavily criticised by experts.

The government is considering the changes as part of its ongoing fight against serious crime and terrorism.

Assistant Information Commissioner Jonathan Bamford has warned that the UK could be “sleepwalking into a surveillance society”.

Others have questioned how such a database could be made secure.

Public confidence

“While the public is “sleepwalking” into a surveillance society, the government seems to have its eyes wide open although, unfortunately, to everything except security,” said Jamie Cowper, data protection expert at data protection firm PGP Corporation.

“The bottom line is – information of this nature should only be held if – and only if – it can be demonstrated that an appropriate system of checks and balances is in place and the security of the information being stored is of paramount concern,” he added.

Public confidence in the governments’ ability to look after data has been dented in recent months with high profile failures, including the loss of a CD carrying all the personal details of every child benefit claimant.

The latest plans being mulled by the Home Office will form part of the proposed Communications Bill, which is due to be considered by MPs later this year.

It is, said a Home Office spokesman, crucial “to ensure that public authorities have access to communications data essential for counter-terrorism and investigation of crime purposes.”


 The more people who have access to it the more risks there would be 
Chris Mayers, Citrix Systems

It would extend the powers of RIPA (the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act) which currently allows hundreds of government agencies access to communications data.

Some believe such legislation, which requires government authorities to request information from communication providers, is more than adequate for law enforcement purposes.

“The fight against terrorism doesn’t require a centralised database,” said Chris Mayers, chief security architect at Citrix Systems, an applications delivery firm.

“Such a database would face threats from both outside and inside. The more people who have access to it the more risks there would be,” he said.

Big Brother

The Internet Service Providers’ Association said it was seeking more information about the proposals.

“In particular we want to know more about the Government’s intentions regarding “modifying the procedures for acquiring communications data,” said a spokesman.

In the run-up to RIPA being approved by parliament, human rights campaigner Privacy International argued that such an act would be a dangerous first step towards a “Big Brother” society.

According to Gus Hosein, a senior fellow at Privacy International, the latest proposals could be even more controversial.

“The idea that ISPs need to collect data and send it en masse to central government is, without doubt, illegal,” he said.

Phonecalls and texts to be logged by Government

Information about all landline and mobile phone calls made in the UK must be logged and stored for a year under new laws.Data about calls made and received will also be available to 652 public bodies, including the police and councils.

The Home Office said the content of calls and texts would not be read and insisted the move was vital to tackle serious crime and terrorism.

But critics said it was another example of Britain’s “surveillance society”.

The new law, under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, was signed off by Home Secretary Jacqui Smith in July.

It requires phone companies to log data on every call or text made to and from every phone in Britain.

‘Different uses’

Since 2004, companies have voluntarily provided data, where available, if it was requested, but now they will required by law to retain it for a year.

Minister for Security and Counter-terrorism Tony McNulty told BBC Radio 4 that the data could provide three levels of information, the simplest being about the phone’s owner.

“Say some old lady has got difficulties with someone who’s repaired the gas in her house and has a mobile phone for somebody who’s clearly dodgy,” Mr McNulty said.

“The local authorities can just get the subscriber information next to that number.

“The second level of data is not simply the subscriber, but also the calls made by that phone.

“And the third level which is purely for the security forces, police, etc, is not just the subscriber information and the calls made, but also the calls coming in and location data – where the calls are made from.”

Personal ‘profile’

A person’s location can be pinpointed to within a few feet by identifying the mobile phone mast used to transmit their call.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of civil rights group Liberty, said people were more concerned than ever about their personal privacy, especially how many bodies had access to their phone records.

“There are actually a very broad range of purposes for which this information about who we’ve been phoning and when can be revealed,” Ms Chakrabarti said.

“It includes, for example, the Gaming Board, the Food Standards Authority and every district and county council in the country.”

She said requests for information would not be limited to those concerning serious crime and national security.

“We’re talking about a profile that can be built of your personal relationships on the basis of who you’ve been speaking to and when.”

Public consulted

Mr McNulty said local councils would only have access to data on “a legitimate and proportional basis”.

“(To say) that all of a sudden anyone and everyone’s information is available, that all these authorities somehow have the right to go fishing and snooping, simply isn’t the case,” he added.

Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: “Once again this government has been caught red-handed creating new surveillance state powers with no meaningful public or parliamentary debate.

The Home Office said the plans had been through a public consultation and said a senior police officer would have to approve any request for phone data.

Councils would only be able to use the powers to “prevent and detect crime – not for the collection of taxes”, the spokesman added.

The new law brings Britain in line with an EU directive on the retention of phone data.

Who’s watching the watchers?

Not even MPs are exempt from the surveillance state they have created, notes regular columnist Bill Thompson. 

CCTV camera near Houses of Parliament, AP

MP’s are worried about coming under the same scrutiny as most citizens

Members of the British Parliament have been shocked to discover that one of their number was bugged by the secret service, violating the forty-year old “Wilson doctrine” that offers MPs immunity from the sort of snooping they are happy for the rest of us to be subject to.Two conversations between Tooting MP Sadiq Khan and his constituent and childhood friend Babar Ahmad were apparently recorded in the prison where Mr Ahmad is being held.

He is on remand while awaiting deportation to the United States on charges relating to his support for terrorism. Mr Ahmad faces no charges in the UK.

The real problem for MPs, of course, is not that they will be specifically targetted for surveillance but that they will inevitably be caught up in operations against other people.

This doesn’t seem to be the case here, as special arrangements were made to seat the two men at a “talking table” in the prison visiting area, but many MPs must have found themselves chatting to someone who was being constantly watched.


Bill Thompson
 Perhaps it’s time to teach our elected representatives how to use the latest encryption and anonymising tools so that they can protect themselves from the surveillance state they have created? 
Bill Thompson

And while it might be nice to think that the people at the other end would think “hold on, that person is an elected Member of Parliament – turn off the recording”, it’s also rather unrealistic. 

Just as few of us believe that employers really do stop reading employee e-mails when they realise that they are personal, although that is what the law would require, it is hard to imagine that the secret service turn off their microphones when an MP enters the room.

The problem is not, however, restricted to specially installed listening devices, and MPs concerned about bugs might want to look again at the laws which control how online communications of all kinds are monitored, stored and analysed, since this affects them as much as it affects the rest of us.

Phone companies and internet service providers keep records of all text messages, phone calls, e-mails, IP addresses, websites visited, and times logged on to instant messaging services, collectively known as “traffic data”.

The content of e-mails and chats or details of web searches are not stored, so it takes a warrant to read someone’s e-mail, monitor their online chats or install bugging software on their laptop so you can listen in to their Skype conversations.

But the information that is retained is enough to know who you are calling or e-mailing, when you’re chatting and which websites you are visiting, the sort of thing that most of us would consider private and expect to be kept confidential.


Harold Wilson, Getty

The immunity for MPs dates from the days of Labour PM Harold Wilson

Apart from website information, which the UK only asks net providers to keep for four days, most of this data is routinely retained for six months. Once the European Directive on Data Retention is fully written into national laws it could be kept for two years. 

According to the Interception of Communications Commissioner, Sir Paul Kennedy, over 250,000 requests for access to this data were made in the first nine months of 2007, an appalling extension of the state’s powers of surveillance, and one that few of us are aware of.

And nearly 800 separate bodies can ask to see some or all of it.

Apart from the police and secret services the Food Standards Agency, health service trusts and even the Post Office can ask to see who you’ve been exchanging e-mails with.

The information gathered will inevitably include details of correspondence between MPs and their constituents, lists of websites visited from MPs offices and home computers and details of which instant messaging services they have been accessing.


Hard drive, Eyewire

Currently net service firms retain data for about six months

And I doubt that there is a filter for “” in the analysis tools so that none of this data is ever passed to the secret services, the police or any of the other government agencies allowed to ask for it, so MPs are probably under routine surveillance whether they like it or not. 

At least it puts them in the same bag as the rest of us. Journalists don’t even have the fig-leaf of protection against being watched that MPs have claimed for themselves, and I tell every one of my students at City University to assume that all of their e-mails, phone calls and online chats could be read by the authorities.

Most of the time, of course, what we’re doing is not of sufficient interest to justify the effort of monitoring a journalist – or even an MP – but being aware of the possibility is vitally important in case a story suddenly becomes high-profile. The same would apply if a constituent becomes “of interest” to the authorities.

MPs might be unhappy to find out that their supposedly confidential chats to constituents are being listened in to by MI5, but surely they should be just as worried that the Food Standards Agency can find out that the owner of the dodgy takeaway in the local high street has been sending them e-mails?

Perhaps it’s time to teach our elected representatives how to use the latest encryption and anonymising tools so that they can protect themselves from the surveillance state they have created?

Or perhaps they would like to do us all a service and dismantle it. 


Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet.