I’m angry. I blogged how cautious I was last night (Civil Liberties- The LibDem’s Home Turf on Spineless Liberal). But now I’m angry. Here’s why.

I am totally opposed to the idea of governments reading people e-mails at will, or creating a totally-new central government database. The point is we’re not doing any of that….

– Nick Clegg

I wanted to write to reassure you that the current reports in the media about Government plans to snoop on your emails are complete nonsense.

Liberal Democrats have always been, and will continue to be, opposed to a centralised database that allows government to monitor your internet activity at will.

– Lynne Featherstone’s e-mail to members.

I have often disagreed with our party’s leadership. I have, occasionally thought them to be wrong, ill-informed, acting illiberally, and more. I have also often agreed with them, don’t get me wrong. Frankly, I’ve agreed far more than I’ve disagreed.

But I’ve never disliked our party’s leadership. I’ve never met any of our MPs but I’ve always had ‘a good vibe’ – they’ve always appeared open, responsible, and most of all, they care.

But today, they patronised me. And I don’t appreciate that.

I have yet to hear any Lib Dem on Twitter actually say that they’re worried about a new centralised government database. As I explained yesterday, Labour’s Intercept Modernisation Programme did create a new centralised government database for data stored by Communications Service Providers (CSPs like internet or telephone companies) . Our Coalition government’s Communications Capabilities Development Programme (CCDP) is an improvement – no such centralised database is created but this new proposal is still worrying by extending this data to online data such as that on Skype, Facebook and Twitter.

I don’t like my leadership putting words in my mouth. I don’t like being told I’m wrong for no reason. I don’t like being treated like a child.

Even without a centralised database, this is still a huge worry.

Besides –

Then we’re dealing with issues like civil liberties, we can’t be careful enough. We may very well agree with these proposals, and trust Cameron and Theresa May not to infringe our rights.

But this is the most troubling “thin end of the wedge” issue.

I am not defending my privacy – whether or not I’ve broken any law, I still shouldn’t have to be forced to make my life an open book – against this government. Nor, perhaps, against the next government. I’m defending my rights against a government in 30 years, in 50, in 100.

must fight the encroachment of the securocrats into my private life every last step of the way. Remember Martin Niemöller.

First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

We must fight any proposal which threatens the right to privacy. Issues like this drift – and when your canoe is our at sea, it’s hard to paddle back to the shallows.


Besides, the government doesn’t know what they’re talking about. As I warned yesterday, I’m no techie. But…. I’m glad I’m in the Liberal Democrats, as we have a lot of tech geeks hanging around. Bless them. I have wondered why or if there is a correlation between IT ability and liberalism, but I’m glad of it. Particularly because other people can answer for me.

Alisdair Calder McGregor wrote an excellent analysis on his new blog (which I highly recommend you check out).

Now, leaving aside for the moment that making laws about specific pieces of software is unfeasable anyway (software coding having a tendency towards “Axe of My Fathers” as a process), it’s not possible to separate status information about an email – the Headers – from the content of the message reliably. Blackberry email is a particular culprit for doing it wrong & packing the entire content of the email into the “title”.

Even if you can do so, that data then becomes meaningless without context. It is a pointless exercise.

Oh, and Skype is not a new form of technology. Videoconferencing has been around since the 80s.

The next problem with the idea is that of who has access to the data. If no warrant is required for intercepts, dissemination could be quite widespread, and could lead to incidents analagous to individuals from the Met Police selling information to the tabloids. That’s a classic “wetware” problem with data security, of the kind which happens a minimum of once a week where I work (although usually by accident rather than for profit).

Thus, there are issues even with the feasibility of this proposal.


The party released a briefing today, based on this proposal.

However,  infuriatingly, the briefing essentially boils down to….

  • There are pedophiles and terrorists out there
  • Labour was going to do something bad.
  • We are not doing this.
  • The government already doers many things.

What the briefing does not cover is what these proposals will actually mean.

Some parts are particularly worrying

The police and security services already have the ability to monitor emails and phone calls where they need to access this data for the prevention or investigation of
serious crime.

This is under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA).

However, it’s a pretty weak argument that they’re simply extending and modernising existing law. RIPA is a very controversial piece of legislation – and one many Liberal Democrats oppose(d). We shouldn’t be content with the status quo merely because it is the status quo.

This type of contextual data (as opposed to content) can be requested by an authorised officer within the organisation, and the process is overseen by the Interception of Communications Commissioner. Anyone who believes their privacy has been breached unlawfully can complain to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal.

Contextual data should not simply be accessible by the police whenever they want it – I do not necessarily trust securocrats in the police and the Commissioners posts to only desire powers that they need.

I’m not alone.

Also – how can people complain to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal when shadowy SIS agents and police are monitoring their communications? Consumers can complain when they’re rights are infringed as it’s bleeding obvious that a product doesn’t work. When your privacy is being abused, how can an individual know? At the very least, this needs further clarification.

Interception of Content – The police and security services can listen to phone calls and read the content of emails only when it is necessary for the investigation or prevention of serious crime or in the interests of national security. To do so they need a warrant signed by the Home Secretary. This system is also overseen by the Interception of Communications Commissioner.

Another point – there does not appear to be any unbiased judicial oversight in any of this. Which deeply worries me.

Instead, we have the person who defines what serious crime and national security is, also giving permission for relevant authorities to access your content if they so decide. Does no one see a conflict of interest here? Does no one see an issue of bias here? Does no one see the possibility of corruption or abuse here?

The EU Data Retention Directive already requires UK communications providers to retain telephony and internet related communications data, which is generated or processed in connection with their business, for 12 months.

No, it does not. It specifies a minimum of 6 months – not 12. Member states choose to extend this to up to 24 months.

Article 6

Member States shall ensure that the categories of data specified in Article 5 are retained for periods of not less than six months and not more than two years from the date of the communication.

I’m a Europhile but this doesn’t prevent me from criticising the EU – even the European Data Protection Supervisor has criticised this directive,  claiming “the necessity of data retention… has not been sufficiently demonstrated.”

The Liberal Democrats shouldn’t be accepting regulations like this, ones that are fundamentally illiberal. I acknowledge that we need to be and to appear tough on crime – but we also need to be willing and able to fight illiberality wherever we encounter it.


This proposal is either seemingly proposed by Theresa May – who, apparently, is either illiberal, irresponsible or inept.

Liberal Democrats like Lynne Featherstone should not be calming us down. She should be supporting us.

We cannot do this behind the scenes. We must be loud. We must be public. We must be proud.

This is the one issue that must surely unite nigh-on everyone in the party. We can disagree on tuition fees. We can disagree on the future of the NHS. We can disagree on deficit reduction, Europe and privatisation. But we are all virulently in favour of civil liberties. You can take our student loans, but you’ll never take our FREEEEEDOM!

So, what can we do?

Firstly, I can only recommend that every last one of us signs this new petition on the matter. Its had 2,000 signatures today, lets get it some more.

Secondly, Zoe Imogen has tweeted…

I’ll be e-mailing immediately after posting this 🙂

Thirdly, follow me on Twitter (@SpinelessLib) for lots more ranting on this issue. If I hear anything else on the matter, I’ll blog and let you know 😉

Fourthly, tell your MP. If there’s any chance you can get more voices to come out against this – especially if they’re Liberal Democrat MPs, who have been tragically silent on this issue – we need it.

Finally, don’t forget this. Often attributed to Benjamin Franklin, or at the very least, a man smarter than myself….

Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.