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The coalition's "surveillance state" problem

Cameron and Clegg's past criticism of state intrusion makes it harder to justify new powers.

New Statesman
The Coalition Agreement pledged to "end the storage of email records without good reason". Photograph: Getty Images.

Nick Clegg has finally responded to the government's email surveillance plan but not in the way that many Lib Dems will have wanted. He emphasised that the coalition had no plans to monitor the content of emails or to create a central database, adding that the changes were only "updating existing laws that apply to mobile telephone calls to apply to new technology like Skype".

The distinction Clegg makes is an important one. There is a significant difference between access to communications data and access to message content. [Lib Dem blogger Mark Pack compares it to "looking at an envelope rather than opening it"]. That the two have been blurred by the media is further evidence of the government's poor communication strategy. But the proposals, which will require internet service providers to retain details of every phone call, email and website visit for at least a year, still represent a significant expansion of state power.

The other problem for Clegg and David Cameron is their past criticism of the "surveillance state". In a June 2009 speech, Cameron declared:

Every month over a thousand surveillance operations are carried out, not just by law enforcement agencies but by other public bodies like councils and quangos. And the tentacles of the state can even rifle through your bins for juicy information.

The Coalition Agreement pledged to "end the storage of internet and email records without good reason." Yet so far ministers have assumed what they have to prove: that the new powers will be put to good use. As the Christopher Graham, the Information Commissioner, has said: "The case for the retention of this data still needs to be made. The value of historic communications data in criminal investigations has not yet been elucidated." So long as this remains the case, ministers will struggle to command the confidence of the public.