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 “parliament.uk” 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.

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