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6 June 2016

The Investigatory Powers Bill is the stop-and-search of the digital age

Just like stop-and-search, the Snoopers' Charter will target minorities - and do nothing to make us safer, warns Diane Abbott. 

By Diane Abbott

Under section 60 – the order that empowers British police to stop and search people without ‘reasonable grounds’ for suspicion, black Londoners are 28 times more likely to be stopped than white Londoners.

The Investigatory Powers Bill or ‘snoopers’ charter’, which dramatically expands the powers of the secret services to hack Briton’s communication data, follows the this same tired playbook, but this time it would be our Muslim citizens who will face the brunt of arbitrary surveillance.

The bill does not require reasonable suspicion of criminality, thereby allowing prejudices, politics or whims to decide whose privacy will be violated and whose will not.

Anyone with a name that suggests they might be Muslim, will be more likely to be targeted amid a climate where millions of law-abiding British Muslims are treated with suspicion on the basis of the crimes of a handful of people.

My own privacy has been violated because of the political whims of unknown state officials, when they decided to monitor my emails, calls, texts, browsing history for years. The private lives of my colleagues known for their assiduous campaign work were also opened up, including Jeremy Corbyn, Harriet Harman and the late Bernie Grant and Tony Benn.  Also targeted was Baroness Doreen Lawrence, who posed no threat to anyone in her pursuit of justice for her murdered teenage son, except to the reputation of the Metropolitan Police, which she eventually helped expose as being “institutionally racist”.

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But while we are in some way afforded a platform to fight back, millions of ordinary British citizens are not.

The Home Secretary tells us that the secret services need this power to snoop on anyone to save lives but keeps to herself  the impact that mass surveillance has on protecting us and has never provided a detailed and evidence-based public justification for its necessity.

Doing so would not compromise national security; it would simply allay the suspicion that this arbitrary power afforded to our intelligence services is simply surplus to requirements.

The Government has now accepted Labour’s call for a review of bulk powers but the process is deeply flawed in terms of its independence and is rumoured to have been given just over a month to report on the operational case for each power.

Comparable reviews in the US have taken much longer and have resulted in a ban on the intelligence services from collecting telephone records in bulk. Federal courts have ruled that bulk data collection in the US is “unprecedented and unwarranted” and “almost Orwellian”.

If this bill were to be passed today, it would mandate a data retention regime unprecedented in any Western democracy. But according to a new poll by Liberty, 72 per cent of the British public do not know about the government’s proposals and of those that do, 92 per cent disagree with them.

The suspicion is shared by officialdom. The UN’s top counter-terrorism official, British lawyer Ben Emmerson, who warned against mass electronic surveillance on the basis that it violated core privacy rights guaranteed by multiple treaties and conventions.  “The hard truth is that the use of mass surveillance technology effectively does away with the right to privacy of communications on the Internet altogether,” he wrote.

Laws should be about reducing harm. Section 60 has not dented knife crime but rather resulted in the alienation of entire communities. No terrorists were prosecuted under the now-repealed Section 44 powers of the Terrorism Act, but rather victimised hundreds of thousands of black or Asian people.

There is no short cut to reducing the threat of young men seeking to inflict violence on others. The solution is to work with communities on the drivers of violent crime and to police them with their consent, not to construct laws based on the incoherent assumption that violence is a function of race or religion.