Yesterday Open Rights Group and 9 other human rights groups wrote to the Home Secretary. This coincided with a meeting that took place at lunchtime yesterday between the Home Secretary, law enforcement representatives and Twitter, Facebook and Research in Motion, to discuss the aftermath of the recent civil unrest.
Following the meeting, the Home Office said in a statement that ''the discussions looked at how law enforcement and the networks can build on the existing relationships and cooperation to crack down on the networks being used for criminal behaviour.' It looked like the Home Office were backing away from suggestions that they are seeking powers to cut off access to communications networks.
The absence of any talk about blocking access to social networks is of course a victory. In principle giving the state greater powers to prevent people using the means to communicate with each other is worrying. And in practice, there's little evidence that simply cutting access would have prevented some of the unrest.
But there is a longer privacy game at play in these discussions. The previous Government's plans to update interception and surveillance powers, under the name of the Intercept Modernisation Programme, disappeared but never died. There were some serious concerns at the time about how the police would be able to access Internet communications, and the requirements for service providers to store such information. There's more background on IMP on our wiki here.
In this coalition Government, which promised to row back on what many saw as intrusions into our liberties, the plans have resurfaced under the name Communications Capabilities Development programme. The meeting yesterday can be seen through that frame - of the process of updating how interception laws work, either through informal relationships between communications providers or social networks and police, or through formal updates of the law.
The New York Times reported comments from Gordon Scobbie, 'a senior police officer who leads efforts to sharpen the force’s social media presence'. He told the NYT that 'the group had discussed how far the networks might be willing to bend privacy rules to assist the police in pursuing online criminal activity.' A greater willingness from communications providers to bend privacy rules, at the encouragement of the Government or police, would be somewhat worrying.
The Home Office website for the programme suggests that the programme is about 'maintaining existing capabilities...not about developing new, more intrusive powers'. We hope that is the case, and that through an open and public debate we can play a role in keeping them to their word.
Targeting communications networks in the aftermath of this civil unrest was simply the wrong target. Through the joint letter, and the Open Rights Group petition that has so far gather over 3,500 signatures (you can add to that number by signing up here), hopefully we have helped demonstrate it is also not an easy target.
Update: The Global Network Initiative have written an excellent letter to the Home Secretary setting this in a global context. In it, they say:
"Communications companies face increased requests from governments around the world to comply with surveillance and censorship requests that could infringe the rights of users. We ask that the Government consider this global context when formulating its response so that specific pressures of the moment do not lead to unintended consequences and undermine the Government’s ability to support and further free speech values internationally."