Cross-party agreement on emergency police powers to access our data

The PM and Nick Clegg will unveil new emergency powers to protect the police’s right to access our data. Labour is to accept the bill, which is a good move.

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In a rare joint press conference today, David Cameron and Nick Clegg will announce new emergency legislation, to be introduced next week, to enshrine police powers to access our phone and email data.

Both Conservative and Lib Dem ministers insist that rushing through the legislation is necessary as a reaction to a European Court of Justice ruling in April that said existing powers, in an EU directive on privacy retention, were too much of an invasion of our privacy.

The government also has the support of the Labour party (aside from Tom Watson MP, who told the Today programme this morning that this cross-party agreement is a “secret deal between party leaders”) in saying they are not creating a new law, they are simply embedding and protecting current police powers in order to avoid telecoms and internet companies destroying the data they already have in fear of legal challenges.

Surveillance has been an odd issue in this country recently. In spite of the Guardian’s slew of gargantuan NSA/GCHQ/Edward Snowden-related scoops last year, and the coalition clashing over a Home Office-mooted “snooper’s charter”, which the Lib Dems still rejoice in shutting down, it’s not a topic that captures the public’s imagination, or outrage, as it does in the US. Perhaps more of a cultural observation, but nevertheless poignant, is the fact that recent surveillance revelations came out almost simultaneously alongside a number of books, television programmes and newspaper articles about Kim Philby and the Cambridge Spies, bolstering a romanticised view of spooks and spying that still lingers in Britain.

Although it’s a generalised view – and there are of course many in this country like Watson who are deeply concerned about intrusion into our private lives and encroachment on our civil liberties ­– this popular attitude makes it a good move for the opposition to agree to the emergency legislation. Little politically would be gained from opposing the government’s plans on this particular subject, and some cross-party cooperation is something the public may appreciate more than another debate about whether or not there are some mandarins somewhere reading when and to whom we’ve sent some texts.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.