Who Watches the Watchers? Police Surveillance to be Monitored

The government is in the process of establishing an independent body to monitor how surveillance powers are used by the police, it has been revealed. An initiative by the Home Office to create such an authority is currently ongoing, though MPs had yet to be informed of the initiative when it was first revealed in the press after being discovered in a tender document made available online.

Police have gained expanded powers of surveillance in the months since Theresa May was appointed to the office of Prime Minister. May had previously for some years been pushing the bill commonly called the “Snooper’s Charter” by its critics. The bill, properly known as the Investigatory Powers Act or IPA, proposed significant and highly controversial extensions of the powers that authorities have to intercept communications and access an individual’s internet browsing history. The independent authority being formed would have responsibility for overseeing the police’s use of its electronic surveillance powers, and top ensure that officers do not freely access internet browsing histories and personal communications without good reason.

The revelation that this independent body is being formed comes at a time when discussions on balancing privacy and national security have been freshly reignited. The subject was raised after it was revealed that the perpetrator of the Westminster terrorist attack had used popular communications app WhatsApp shortly before committing his crimes. The government then suggested that WhatsApp and similar apps, which currently protect messages with electronic encryption, should be required to give their software in-built vulnerabilities that the government could use to gain access to communications.

The project to develop an independent body to oversee surveillance is seemingly a response to harsh criticisms of UK police surveillance powers in a judgement made at the end of last year by the European Court of Justice (ECJ). The December judgement saw the ECJ, the highest authority among the courts of the European Union, criticise the UK for “general and indiscriminate retention” of electronic communications such as emails. The ECJ called for stricter safeguards to prevent the mishandling of this data by UK authorities; something the new initiative is apparently designed to provide.

A number of human rights groups, many of which were involved with the ECJ case, and deputy Labour Party leader Tom Watson, who was partly responsible for bringin the legal challenge that led to the judgement have expressed the opinion that the project seems to have been designed as a response to the ECJ decision. Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, welcomed the government’s taking steps to address the issues identified by the court but felt that the project did not go far enough.

Killock said: “The ECJ ruling was clear in stating that blanket data retention is not permissible. While it’s welcome that the government appears to be addressing the issue of independent authorisation, it cannot cherry pick which parts of the ruling it wants to accept.”