Thought for the day: Is RIPA the thin end of the wedge?

After the quashing of last year's controversial revisions to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, Simon Moores is...

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After the quashing of last year's controversial revisions to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, Simon Moores is suspicious of the Home Office's latest batch of amendments.



Now for the good news from government - and I don’t mean more toilet paper for our troops in Kuwait or even shorter working hours for MPs.

No, it’s better even than that. The Home Office is, reportedly, scaling back its efforts to force through the legislation that will give government greater access to our e-mail.

I’m particularly interested in this move because it was reported last summer that the Computer Weekly column I wrote on the revisions to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) had been passed to Mr Blunkett by his son and that this, in turn, encouraged the home secretary to realise his existing amendments to RIPA were unworkable.

This month then, and with much muttering about "consultation", the Home Office reportedly plans to have another try with a more watered-down version of RIPA, a "rethink", which this time denies the right of local government officials - conceivably, even, traffic wardens - to trawl through your e-mail on a whim.

You see, if the original proposals hadn’t been so scathingly challenged by the likes of Newsnight’s Jeremy Paxman, then seven Whitehall departments, all local authorities, NHS bodies and 11 other agencies would have been given the same powers as the police and intelligence services and, of course, the real power in the land, the Inland Revenue and HM Customs & Excise.

So now, this cleverly rethought proposal suggests instead that such powers - the "right to demand access to the full range of communications data" - be awarded to five new bodies, who might, in turn, be the Scottish drug enforcement agency, the Serious Fraud Office, NHS Trusts, the UK Atomic Energy Constabulary and the Fire Service.

Other "second-tier" organisations will have access only to subscriber data, such as customers' names and addresses. Why the Fire Service, you might ask? Why not? says the Home Office.

This time, at least, the authority wishing to wield this power will have to receive approval from a nominated senior official from each agency, rather than the approval of, well, any official who might have been around at the time.

So this is good news, right? Well, only in as far as RIPA was the thin end of a much larger government wedge jammed up against what little statutory privacy is left to us.

In principle this is bad legislation in new packaging and invariably, the Home Office will find other avenues to achieve its more sinister digital purpose.

The legislation of the past five years has undone much of the good work that started with the Magna Carta, and RIPA is simply a manifestation of a different world where the clock started ticking on the morning of 11 September.

What do you think? 

Is RIPA a necessary check on digital communications, or a blatant abuse of human rights? Tell us in an e-mail >> reserves the right to edit and publish answers on the Web site. Please state if your answer is not for publication.

Zentelligence Setting the world to rights with the collected thoughts and opinions of the futurist writer, broadcaster and Computer Weekly columnist Simon Moores.

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