It was during this parliament that Edward Snowden provided incontrovertible evidence of the UK government’s active participation in an ongoing program of supranational surveillance state building. You’d have thought the fact that the United States routinely conspires with Whitehall to spy on her majesties subjects would “come up” during a general election campaign.
You’d be underestimating the awesome skill British politicians have in avoiding serious debate.
The Tories don’t want to talk about it. It blew up on their watch requiring the introduction of emergency bends in the law needed to keep themselves on the right side of it. This fig leaf doesn’t impress the Law Society whose response to the governments consultation on RIPA a few weeks back was scathing.
Labour still has badly singed eyebrows from the ID card scheme that blew up under the internal pressure of its expanding cost at the last changing of the guard. Left of them the newly boisterous SNP care little for privacy either; their Scottish Entitlement smart card is criticized as worse than Labour’s own aborted surveillance scheme. If Mr Milliband moves into 10 Downing Street next week we’ll just have to hope he’s learned his lesson, because nobody else on our new, colorful and fractured left has said much to note on the subject.
That just leaves the guys with “Liberty” in their name.
The Liberal Democrats have been proffering a Digital Bill of Rights as part of their manifesto – but nobody else will talk to them about it. Maybe the little bit they have achieved over the last five years on privacy issues is better than nothing; they certainly championed the death of ID cards. Unfortunately they also look like they’re going to get a kicking at the polls for buckling on tuition fees and this “Bill of Rights” doesn’t make their current list of non negotiable policies anyway. So good luck to the Lib Dems – they’re going to need a lot of it to make much of a difference.
What reasons for optimism?
Charlotte Leslie (Conservative, Bristol North West) made time to chat face to face during the early part of this campaign; she’s a popular constituency MP and is tipped to do well on Thursday. We wanted reassurance that producing technology in the UK that’s specially designed to make it very difficult to spy on users wont get us into legal trouble in future. Bristol is an increasingly important tech cluster and headlines about the PM including the words “crackdown” and “encryption” are a bit scary if you deal in cryptographic technology.
Charlotte raised our concerns with party HQ and in due course we received this letter from Ed Vaizey, the outgoing minister for Culture and Digital Communications. He is keen to point out that the PM had no intention of banning UK firms from offering crypto-tech to private customers and nor is there a plan to legislate against specific technologies. Mr Vaizey also seems to have more than an inkling of the intractable reality that strict privacy is an inevitable consequence of adequate security.
Read it for yourself and draw your own conclusions.
We think that any result on Thursday is going to return a government that is weak on privacy and civil liberties in general (sorry Ed Snowden, we’d offer you asylum if it were up to us). We also think we are likely to remain free to trade in technology that offers privacy workarounds to those who need or want them.
There are no overt plans to outlaw keeping your communication private – just plans to make it difficult enough for professionals, businesses and ordinary people to keep investing in privacy technology.