Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

Communications interception — dazed half-memories of a conference call with @julianhuppert

Yesterday, I attended a blogger’s conference call with Julian Huppert MP and a special advisor from the Home Office, which was to discuss the proposed communications interceptions bill. At first it was just Huppert and myself, and I embarassed myself with my lack of political knowledge (I’d not read the Queen’s Speech yet because I’d been too busy not doing that), but we were joined by Richard Flowers, Richard Morris, Helen Duffet, Mark Pack, Jennie Woods, Caron Lindsay, Zoe O’Connell and Jonathan Calder. Zoe and Jonathan have both written about it already — some of the rest may have, too, but I haven’t checked my feed reader since about 9PM yesterday.

I did take detailed notes of the first half of the conversation. Unfortunately, one of the participants then said that a lot of what they’d said was off the record, and as I didn’t take perfect notes as to who said what (and took no notes at all for the last half), I’m going to be deliberately vague about a lot of stuff here, and try to ensure that I don’t tell tales out of school.

So I’m going to paraphrase here, and give MY INTERPRETATION of what is going on. This is *INFORMED BY* the conference call, but in paraphrasing and eliding details I may have got things wrong.

First things first, the so-called ‘draft bill’ going round is nothing of the sort. It’s a Home Office briefing document, and one that was written fairly early in the process. The draft bill *has not yet been written*, or at least has not been finalised.

It appears that the original intention of those who proposed the bill in the first place was to have something very like the worst rumours that have been out there, but that this has been *definitively* quashed by Lib Dem activists and MPs. It sounds to me like the Home Office (or elements within it) wanted to sneak one past us, and they couldn’t.

Despite the rumours, the stuff about blocking porn by default will *NOT* be in the draft bill.

The main point, however, is this:

The draft bill will probably be bad, *but that is not the end of the matter*. When it comes out, it will look horrible, and people will scream about it. When that happens, it will be a good thing if you let your MP know exactly what problems you have with the draft, but *do not panic at this stage*.

The bill will be going in front of a Parliamentary Committee, which Huppert is on, and which will be *extensively* modifying it. They will be doing so on the basis of advice from technology companies about what the actual technical implications of the bill will be (Huppert is probably the single most technologically clued-up person in Parliament, and he freely admits that he needs expert advice from people who know more than him. Much of the sheer awfulness of most legislation relating to the net (IN MY OPINION – this part did not come up in the call) arises from the fact that it’s written by middle-aged arts graduates who don’t know what it is that they don’t know, so the fact that they’re actually going to ask people with a clue is itself a major improvement), advice from civil liberties groups (Huppert mentioned Liberty, No2ID and the Open Rights Group as people whose opinions they will be asking for), and from non-affiliated individuals whose opinion will be useful (he mentioned Tim Berners-Lee and Jimmy Wales here).

The end result will be something far, far better than the draft bill. We can’t know what that something better will be yet, obviously, but the general rough lines will probably be:

Far fewer people having powers to order interception of communications (did you know that right now everyone from the police to your local council to the postal services authority can legally get access to records of every phone call you make and email you send? Not the contents of the message, but who it was to — and they can do it without a judicial warrant, and without you ever knowing.) — the ideal will be to have it be that only the police and security services can do this, and only with a judicial warrant, though we may not get that ideal.

An “air gap” whereby the police can’t directly access the databases held by ISPs or websites, but can only request data from those companies.

And then, and only with those additional restrictions, the ability for that smaller group of people to access contact data — data of who you’ve contacted through, eg, Skype — in the same way that the current larger group of people can access details of who you’ve emailed or phoned — if and only if that can be done without storing or decrypting the contents of the messages. If it can’t (and it is my understanding that it can’t, but I don’t know enough networking stuff to be sure) then that won’t happen.

The end result *should* be that a bad bill goes into the process, and a bill comes out that, while not good from my point of view, will mean that overall there is less state intrusion into people’s private correspondence, not more, and that what state intrusion there is will be for, if not good reasons, at least better ones. I can accept as plausible an argument that there might be circumstances in which the police or security services might need to know who talked to whom in order to prevent a terrorist atrocity. I don’t accept as reasonable the current situation, where councils can (and have) check people’s email records and have them followed because they’re suspected of letting their dogs foul the pavement.

If my understanding of what was said at last night’s call is correct, while the draft bill will be bad, the result of the scrutiny process *should* be that at the end of it we move from the current situation (where we have legislation in force already from the last government that frankly puts most of the structures for a totalitarian surveillance state into place, ready for any unscrupulous politician to use) to one where the worst excesses of the last government are rolled back slightly, though nowhere near as far as I’d like.

So while I can’t say I’m at all happy at the proposals, I have enough faith in Huppert’s record on both civil liberties and tech stuff that if he says the end result will be an incremental improvement, rather than things getting worse, I’ll take his word for it, at least until we see the bill after the committee’s scrutiny.

Other people who were on the call — could you please clarify or correct in the comments? I think I’m giving the correct impression here, but I’m terribly worried I’ve got hold of the wrong ends of several sticks…