FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Hidden Browsing Histories: Theresa May and the Snooper’s Charter

“‘Trust Me’ might be just the most manipulative thing a politician can say. It means leave me alone in secret to operate without proper challenge.”

— Tom Watson, UK Deputy Labour Leader, Dec 18, 2015

Many government policies are advertised as useful for broader safety – till they are reversed to apply to the very officials who create them. The UK Home Secretary is very much of that school. Readers will be aware what Theresa May has done her invaluably bit to undermine privacy on the broader pretext of protecting security.

Central to this is the Home Office’s insistence on the Investigatory Powers Bill that seemingly insists on more intrusion than investigation. The bill, in rather futile fashion, will compel phone and web companies to retain records of every citizen for at least a year, providing a data pool which police and security services could access when required. The legislation goes further, enrolling the relevant service providers in a pseudo-police role that will override encryption if needed.

May has found herself having to sugar coat the bill with some decent premise, and has decided to go the cyberbullying card, a view she outlined to South Suffolk MP James Cartlidge.

The tactic is standard: if people are misbehaving on the internet, those on facilitating its use should be made responsible for moral behaviour. Accordingly, “Internet connection records would update the capability of law enforcement in a criminal investigation to determine the sender and recipient of a communication, for example, a malicious message such as those exchanged in cyberbullying.”

The response by The Independent has been an attempt to pull the history of Theresa May’s browsing history for the last week of October, a freedom of information request that purposely excludes any information directly concerned with security matters.

What is good for the goose of inquiry is also grand for the gander placed under the scrutinising eye of the state. In short, if you are going to be equal before the law, then by golly even ministers should have their browsing history on the internet made available for the public gaze.

Not so, according to the Home Office. The FOI request has been dismissed as vexatious. In other words, the request was dismissed on grounds of an action “brought without sufficient grounds for winning, purely to cause annoyance to the defendant.”

The Home Office’s response, drawing upon section 14(1) of the Act, insisted that the department had “decided that your request is vexatious because it places an unreasonable border on the department, because it has adopted a scattergun approach and seems solely designed for the purpose of fishing for information without any idea of what might be revealed.”

The response provides a suitable template for critics of the surveillance state, if only because it demonstrates the hopeless rationale for the entire metadata retention regime. If the request by The Independent was, by its nature, scattergun, one could hardly assume that the security state’s behaviour in this regard is anything but scattergun.

This legal excuse remains one of the least convincing in the area of information law. It is, however, used repeatedly by states who have freedom of information regimes, providing slivers when asked, but generally withholding the bulk of what is deemed too sensitive for release.

The point is often the same: we will have a regime to allow information for the public precisely because we are intent on disallowing much of it. Regulation, in other words, is constriction, measured in the name of protecting that great, inscrutable fiction known as the public interest. You are kept in the dark because ignorance is necessary bliss.

In the case of the Home Office, there could be few things more fundamentally vexatious than a metadata retention regime premised on the nonsense of combating trolls and bullies on the world wide web.

The efforts on the part of The Independent have at least demonstrated to British citizens that this regime has other purposes, managing to get some egg onto the faces of Home Office officials. It is by no means the only quarter targeting the potential consequences of the bill. Labour’s Deputy Leader Tom Watson has argued that the bill’s supposed self-guarding mechanisms and oversight simply do not go far enough in protecting privacy.

In Watson’s mind, there was merely a “very limited review of the Home Secretary’s warrants by a judge appointed by a Commissioner who is appointed by the prime minister.” It was a “false choice to say that these massive extensions of state power must be introduced without checks and balances.”

Apple’s CEO Tim Cook finds its provisions similarly repellent for privacy. “We believe it would be wrong,” went a company statement, “to weaken security for hundreds of millions of law-abiding customers so that it will also be weaker for the very few who pose a threat.” Given this government’s supposed love of the corporate sector, big business and all, David Cameron and his Home Secretary have their work sharply cut out for them.

More articles by:

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
Weekend Edition
April 03, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Omar Shaban
Gaza’s New Conflict: COVID-19
Rob Urie
Work, Crisis and Pandemic
John Whitlow
Slumlord Capitalism v. Global Pandemic
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Strange Things Happening Every Day
Jonathan Cook
The Bigger Picture is Hiding Behind a Virus
Paul Street
Silver Linings Amidst the Capitalist Coronavirus Crisis
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The Control of Nature
Louis Proyect
COVID-19 and the “Just-in-Time” Supply Chain: Why Hospitals Ran Out of Ventilators and Grocery Stores Ran Out of Toilet Paper
Kathleen Wallace
The Highly Contagious Idea
Kenneth Good
The Apartheid Wars: Non-Accountability and Freedom for Perpetrators.
Andrew Levine
Democracy in America: Sorry, But You Can’t Get There from Here.
Ramzy Baroud
Tunisia Leads the Way: New Report Exposes Israel’s False Democracy
David Rosen
Coronavirus and the State-of-Emergency Pandemic
Matthew Stevenson
Will Trump Cancel the Election? Will the Democrats Dump Joe?
Ron Jacobs
Seattle—Anti-Capitalist Hotbed
Michael T. Klare
Avenger Planet: Is the COVID-19 Pandemic Mother Nature’s Response to Human Transgression?
Jack Rasmus
COVID-19 and the Forgotten Working Class
Werner Lange
The Madness of More Nukes and Less Rights in Pandemic Times
J.P. Linstroth
Why a Race is Not a Virus and a Virus is Not a Race
John Feffer
We Need a Coronavirus Truce
Thomas S. Harrington
“New Corona Cases”: the Ultimate Floating Signifier
Victor Grossman
Corona and What Then?
Katie Fite
Permanent Pandemic on Public Lands: Welfare Sheep Ranchers and Their Enablers Hold the West’s Bighorns Hostage
Patrick Bond
Covid-19 Attacks the Down-and-Out in Ultra-Unequal South Africa
Eve Ottenberg
Capitalism vs. Humanity
Nicky Reid
Fear and Loathing in Coronaville Volume 2: Panic On the Streets of Tehran
Jonas Ecke
Would Dying for the Economy Help Anybody?
Jeff Mackler
Capitalism is the Virus!
Andrew Moss
Incarceration, Detention, and Covid-19
Farzana Versey
Prayers, Piffle and Privation in the Time of Pandemic
Will Solomon
In the New Dystopia
Dean Baker
The Relative Generosity of the Economic Rescue Package: Boeing vs. Public Broadcasting
Dr. Leo Lopez, III
We Need a Lot More Transparency From the CDC
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Reflections on a Glass of Homemade Cider
Rashid Nuri
Homegrown Crisis Response: Who Grows Your Food?
Mark Luskus
Worst Case Scenario: Healthcare Workers Need Masks, ASAP
Volker Franke
The Virus That May Bring us Together
Mitchell Zimmerman
A Q & A on the GOP’s Call for Elder Sacrifice
Olfat al-Kurd
COVID-19 Could Be Catastrophic for Us: Notes From Gaza
Eileen Appelbaum - Roesmary Batt
Hospital Bailouts Begin…for Those Owned by Private Equity Firms
Nabri Ginwa
Carcinogens
Jill Richardson
Efficiency vs. Resilience
Lee Ballinger
Eddie Van Halen and the Future of Humanity
David Yearsley
Beset by Bach
Robert Koehler
Developing a Vaccine Against War
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail