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William Hague MP defends Investigatory Powers Bill

The idea of a 'Snoopers Charter' is ridiculous in the light of current and planned checks and balances around access to communications data, says William Hague

Former first secretary of state and foreign secretary William Hague defended the government’s Investigatory Powers Bill at Infosecurity Europe 2016 in London.

If people could see the system of checks and balances already in place for accessing electronic communications, they would see how “ridiculous the idea of a ‘snoopers charter’ is”, he said.

Hague defended the UK’s intelligence services, saying that, while their successes are often never known, any failings instantly become headline news.

As foreign secretary, he said he saw the need for intelligence to frustrate organised crime, terrorism and foreign espionage on a daily basis.

“It’s a depressing fact that there are far more organisations and activities than the average citizen might suspect aimed at causing people in this country harm,” said Hague.

A huge proportion of the work done to detect that, he said, is electronic in some way and typically involves putting together a “mosaic” of intelligence, requiring many different pieces of data.

“It is intensive of both people and technology in homing in on the most serious threats but, if we were not able to gather intelligence effectively about organised crime or terrorist activity, restrictions on the liberty of our citizens in many other ways would have to be much more serious and draconian.”

Hague said most people are left undisturbed by law enforcement activities, because they can be focused on the people most likely to be a problem for the country.

Read more about the Investigatory Powers Bill

'Exceptional circumstances'

In the debate about security and privacy, he said it is vital to understand that we cannot track down the illegal arms dealer, modern slavery gangs, tax fraudsters or terror cells without intelligence.

“That intelligence is bound to involve the state being able – in exceptional circumstances – to look into the private communications of the people believed to be involved in illegal activities,” said Hague.

However, he said he saw and experienced in his government roles the sensitive way in which this is done in the UK.

But, he said, the “Snowden affair” led to many of the groups that UK authorities monitor and track changing the way they operated, effectively reinforcing privacy for criminal activities.

“It has also led many people –understandably – to be alarmed about whether the balance between privacy and security is correct, and about mass surveillance and whether security agencies are exceeding their powers,” said Hague.

“The law needed an overhaul on this, which it is now getting in the Investigatory Powers Bill that is now before parliament to clarify, consolidate and amend the law.”

Onerous warrant process

Hague said he recognised the deep suspicion of government and intelligence agencies in this regard – but said it is a sign of a free society when people question what is done by authorities.

“But people don’t often hear what it is like to make these decisions about intercepting communications. I dealt with interception warrants nearly every day as foreign secretary, and it is important to understand that, in the UK, the content of someone’s communications can only be intercepted with a warrant signed by a secretary of state,” he said.

This means the most senior UK ministers spend a “good deal of their time” and take “considerable trouble” over each warrant, which comes with a lengthy justification showing that it is necessary and proportionate in the view of the agency seeking the warrant.

It also often expires after a few weeks or months and has to be renewed, and it is accompanied by legal advice and the opinion of independent specialists.

“The time and trouble taken over these issues at an individual level at the top of government is really considerable, and they are not always approved. All of that work is then reviewed by independent commissioners who report to the prime minister – the new bill introduces judicial commissioners as well, who also need to approve the warrants.

“So it is a system with many checks and balances, and it is not open to abuse by any single person, up to and including the home secretary and the foreign secretary – and so I think if people could see how that happens on a daily basis, their anxiety and hostility on this issue might be somewhat alleviated.”

Laying privacy myths to rest

Citing GCHQ director Robert Hannigan, he said it was a myth that the government wants to ban encryption because, in reality, it advocates people and businesses in the UK using encryption to protect themselves.

“Hannigan said, all the government is saying is that information needed for national security and investigating serious crime should not be beyond the lawful, judicially warranted reach of the state when the need arises,” said Hague.

The second myth Hannigan addressed, when he was appointed as head of GCHQ, was that the UK government wanted to weaken security products by requiring them to have so-called “back doors”.

“Hannigan said the UK government has never said this and does not want this, and works with companies to make products secure,” said Hague.

The third myth Hannigan addressed is that the government encourages vulnerabilities and leaves them there. “But the truth is the opposite. In the past two years, Hannigan said GCHQ has disclosed vulnerabilities in every major mobile and desktop platform – including the big names that underpin British business,” said Hague.

“This underlines the importance of partnerships and realising there won’t be absolutist answers to fundamental questions, that there will be shades of pragmatism and shades of judgement, and that there should not be caricatures of governments or companies as if we know exactly what they need and want.”

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