June 03, 2016 | Javier Ruiz

The Request Filter will turn your personal records into a police database

Next week MPs will be discussing amendments to the #IPBIll. We must ensure they understand what the Request Filter really is—a federated database, or Google search for citizen-suspects.


database cc-by-eirik-stavelin-flickrThe Investigatory Powers BIll (IPB) is reaching a critical junction. Next week, the House of Commons will be discussing the bill at the Report Stage, which is the last chance for MPs to propose or support amendments before the bill is passed to the Lords.

The bill is very long and complex, and hundreds of amendments have been proposed. However, the “Request Filter” in particular is receiving far too little attention. With a huge range of issues to deal with, the Request Filter has been absent from the discussions from the front benches, despite being the one of two completely new developments in the Bill. As the IPB enters report stage we need to ensure that the Filter gets the attention it deserves from MPs.

The Request Filter is described by the Home Office as a safeguard designed to reduce the collateral intrusion produced in searching for small, specific information in a large dataset. In reality, the Request Filter would allow automated complex searches across the retained data from all telecommunications operators.

This has the potential for population profiling, composite fishing trips and the unaccountable generation of new insights. It is bulk data surveillance without the bulk label, and without any judicial authorisation at all. The Food Standards Agency will be able to self-authorise itself to cross reference your internet history with your mobile phone location and landline phone calls—and search and compare millions of other people’s records too.

Queries can be made across datasets. Location data - which pub you were in - can be compared with who you phoned, or which websites you visit. All with great convenience, through automated search. The searches will be increasingly focused on events, such as a website visited, or place people have gathered, rather than the suspects. This is the reverse of the position today, which requires the police to focus on suspects, and work outwards.  In the future, with the Filter, any query can examine the data of thousands of innocent persons - to “check” that they don’t fit the police’s search criteria.

The idea of “passive” retained records, that lie unexamined until someone comes to the attention of the authorities, will lie dead. The data becomes an actively checked resource, allowing everyone’s potential guilt to be assessed as needed.

The Filter creates convenience for law enforcement queries, and pushes practice towards the use of intrusive capabilities. It lowers the practical level on which they are employed. Techniques that today would be used only in the most serious crimes, because they require thought and care, tomorrow may be employed in run of the mill criminal activity, public order, or even food standards, as the bill stands.

The Filter was at the centre of debates when the original Snooper’s Charter was first introduced in 2012. Parliament described the Request Filter at the time as “essentially a federated database of all UK citizens’ communications data”.

This dystopian surveillance tool should be stopped, and next week MPs will have the chance to do it. There are several amendments presented by the Lib-Dem MP Alistair Carmichael that aim to remove the filter.

Another MP, the Conservative Stephen McPartland, who was part of the Science and Technology Committee and understands the implications of the Filter, has tabled a series of amendments with measures designed to constrain the power. These include restricting the Filter to exceptional circumstances, putting it under the control of the Judicial Commissioner as other bulk powers, and bringing it into the statute book as formal Regulations - so it is subjected to the normal transparency and processes of judicial review.

It is important that all those amendments get debated. We want the complete removal of the filter. McPartland’s amendments describe the minimum requirements even a proponent should be seeking, but more importantly give MPs an opportunity to be told what the filter is, what it is capable of, and why the government plans so little oversight for it.

The nature of the Filter must be discussed to expose the Orwellian doublespeak characterisation by the Home Office of this surveillance tools as a “safeguard” to improve privacy. This will only happen if MPs’ can have enough time to discuss the BIll, and their constituents - i.e. you - remind them that this is important.


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