The party machine’s view on communication interception

Last night there was a conference call between policy advisors within the LibDem party and the more vocal grass-roots, such as myself, on current proposals to extent interception powers. It was more than a little enlightening and certainly heated at times. It included the Senior Policy Advisors, (SPAds) special advisors and policy unit staff who are Liberal Democrats, but work alongside the Civil Service. Much of the job of a SPAd for example is to tell a Civil Servant that they’re proposing something the minister won’t stand for, without having to worry the minister too much about it. It’s also confidential so the minister doesn’t have to worry about negative press coverage because a Bernard Woolley civil servant has had a dumb idea.

That system has broken down here. The Civil Service have resurrected their nice plans from under the Labour Government, tweaked them a bit and put them under the noses of the new crop of advisors. But the Civil Servants don’t understand this either, so the briefings they have been giving are rather one-sided. (That’s not me being charitable by the way – they are not being all Sir Humphrey. I’ve met some of these people and they really don’t understand it.)

Miss S B has also written about the call on her blog and that’s worth a read too, along with the comments, for more on the political rather than technical/policy side.

Here is what the policy bods think is being proposed

The current situation is that the security services and police can request information from service providers that they already hold. I’ll skip the detail, but depending on the service provider they can get some idea about some phone calls made or received and emails from at least the last few days, potentially up to two years worth.

They can’t do this in all cases, for example Skype, World of Warcraft chat (Apparently this has been used by drug dealers) or similar. Even Disney’s Club Penguin for young kids could be used in this way, as the Three Lions film demonstrated.

So they want to “normalise” the situation and catch up with technology with the new programme so they retain the ability they already have.

On the call, someone from the policy/SPAd side actually used the phrase “terrorists and paedophiles” to justify increasing powers. This is the 21st Century equivalent of Godwin – any law not involving actual abuse of kids that requires “OMG PAEDOPHILES!” to justify probably should never be enacted or even ever discussed again.

Here is what is actually being proposed

The briefings have been one-sided, as I’ve noted. As a result, claims of “scaremongering” by Nick Clegg and that the coverage is “complete nonsense” by Lynne Featherstone is probably in line with what they are being told by the Civil Service and what they genuinely believe they are discussing.

It is also wrong.

We had to explain it several times, but it was clear that the policy folks did not understand they were shifting the balance between retaining and obtaining. At the moment, service providers can hand over information they already retain in the course of normal business and require an interception warrant from the Secretary of State to obtain anything more than this.

The new proposals would oblige service providers to obtain information that they currently don’t – basically, to dive into the contents of the traffic we’re carrying to figure out not only that you’re sending traffic to a Google mail server or World of Warcraft, but what that traffic really does.

One analogy that has been used is asking Royal Mail to record all mail, with details of who sends mail to whom, which is already pretty bad from a civil liberties perspective. But it is actually worse than that, because we are being asked to open all the mail and check to see if the envelope actually contains another letter inside to be forwarded on to someone else. Or not just record that you rang a voicemail service, but listen in on the call to see who left you messages.

And they think we can create a system to open these letters and listen in on these calls without risking also creating a system that might be able to read or listen to the content. And that we’re able to guarantee keeping the data secure – on a system that by necessity has to be connected to the internet – once collected.

To give them credit, the policy folk did say that this was a red line they were not willing to cross. However, they do not yet accept (Because Civil Servants tell them otherwise) that this is what is actually being proposed. If we can can convince them of this, by convincing them that the party grass roots does know what it is talking about on technological issues, I would expect the plans would get dropped pretty quick.

The situation now

There has been a degree of back-tracking from the top in response to a level of grass-roots reaction that has surprised them. Initially, it seems there were plans to announce legislation (Without consultation?) in the Queen’s speech. That’s now been watered down to “draft legislation” and vague noises about “consultation”, but it is not clear what the form of that draft legislation or consultation would be.

So it’s not hopeless. But we do still need to keep the pressure on those at the top to make sure they can’t change surveillance powers without being held properly accountable not to the civil service, but to the wider party.


  1. It did seem very clear to me seeing a couple of TV clips, that Nick Clegg was parroting a line he had been fed and, knowing nothing, genuinely believed it.
    It does, though, seem to me that if one knows little about technology and is either being given advice by people who don’t know anything either (or who are lying to you) that one might think: ‘well, people look at email headers so they can look at Skype headers, or Twitter headers, or Facebook headers’. Surely it is non-obvious that one is committing an error here and that there is no such thing as a Facebook header in the same way as an email one? (Particularly as one might be using a Facebook / Twitter client on ones iPhone – how is someone to know that the Facebook and Twitter clients are using HTTP on port 80, and not a special Facebook / Twitter client?)

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