Understanding and reviewing the bulk powers in the IP Bill

This post represents the opinions of Privacy International and the Open Rights Group. Other organisations are welcome to add their names as being in agreement.

files cc-by-nc plashingvole flickrThe public operational case for bulk powers and review

The majority of the powers in the Investigatory Powers Bill are new to Parliament. While much of the capability is already in use by the security and intelligence agencies, they have been deployed under secret interpretations of statutes, which Parliament has not consented to. The primary reason they were not able to consent to them is because the fact of the bulk powers were not avowed until very recently, and indeed, some are still not avowed.

As this is the first time that Parliament has considered the powers, it is right that the Government make full, detailed, operational cases from first principles for every such new power, and that case is scrutinised.  As of yet, the Government’s attempts at providing an operational case have been insufficient.  There is much work to be done to give Parliament and the public a full picture of scope and utility of the bulk powers.

An Independent Review

An independent assessment should be made of the operational case for each bulk power by a security-cleared panel who will have additional fact-finding powers, allowing them to scrutinse material that for national security reasons can’t be made public. To this end, the launch of a review panel is a welcome one.

The review is a step forward in ensuring democractic accountability for the actions of our security and intelligence agencies. But to be credible, the review must:

1 Establish public terms of reference.

No terms of reference have yet been set. It is essential that terms of reference is agreed and made public immediately.

2 Take the time that is needed.

The panel cannot undertake a full review of the bulk powers contained in the Investigatory Powers Bill in the time frame provided. To to so, an assessessment of the three security and intelligence agencies investigative capabilities would be required which will be impossible with the resource currently available to the panel. Should the panel expand the scope of their review or feel they are unable to complete the review with the level of rigour required in the time available, a time extension must be permitted, with the bulk powers split from the IPBill until the review can report back to their satisfaction.

3 Be produced by a balanced panel.

Perspectives from outside the intelligence community are needed to ensure independence inclduing civil libertities and human rights expertise. We recommend in particular the inclusion of a technical expert from outside the intelligence community, as well as the ability for the panel to request technical assistance from agencies in the form of seconding a technical staffer of the panels choosing to work for the scrutiny panel. Recent panel reviews of bulk powers in the US should be consulted to ensure lessons are learned. 

4 Examine the capabailities and their use, rather than the legal powers.

It would be unsatisfactory to review the high-level case for bulk powers without analysing how they have, and continue to be used in fact. The production of a new public operational case is only the beginning of that exercise. The bulk powers are drafted in such a way that there is considerable variety of technical capabilities that could be deployed under each of the bulk powers. The review must analyse the case for the capabilities, rather than just the power. 

Capabilities the panel should consider include those that have had least scurinty such as Bulk Communications Data Acquisition, Bulk Equipment Interference due to their late avowal, or in the case of Bulk Equipment Interferance continued disavowal. Longstanding concerns about Bulk Interception of secondary data will also need detailed scrutiny.

5 Test the necessity of the bulk powers, not merely their usefulness.

Such capabilities need to be assessed, not as to whether they are merely helpful, faster or offer some form of value, but that given the likely widespread intrusion bulk powers result in, that they are strictly necessary to prevent attacks in the UK. An essential aspect of this requires analysing case studies provided by agencies to determine whether more targeted measures could achieve the same or a similar goal. 

6 Report publicly.

Unlike previously sensitive reviews, such as Nigel Sheinwald’s review of the UK-US data sharing which remains classified, the review’s report must be a public document.

The Government’s Current Operational Case

The existing 47 page “operational case for bulk powers” which was published alongside the introduction of the Bill is inadequate.  More than half of the document is introductory in nature, covering topics such as how the internet works, leaving an average of 5 pages devoted to each capability, with most of that material being already public, in other explanatory documents. Despite the opportunity to provide concrete, solid examples of how bulk powers bring unique value, most of the material even within each section is kept at a high level. By way of example, the first three pages of the four page Bulk Interception case, covers (i) introduction to the power, (ii) current legal position, and (iii) new safeguards in the IPBill. The fourth and final page provides three one-paragraph case studies.

A new public operational case needs to be made. This operational case must go further than setting out individual, unsupported case studies. Sufficient material should be made public to permit detailed analysis, and stand the scrutiny of parliamentarians, civil society, academia and any other body.