dade72 - Fotolia

Fight against Investigatory Powers Bill may not be over

Labour's shadow home secretary Diane Abbott says that wider society must now debate the controversial Investigatory Powers Bill, despite Parliamentary approval

One of the most unfortunate facets of the Investigatory Powers (IP) Bill is that it contains a series of provisions relating to data, technology and internet-based companies which may be difficult for non-experts to grasp.

Added to that are claims from the government that these new, fairly draconian measures contained in the bill are necessary for national security. So it is no surprise that so many members of Parliament are willing to lend their support.

The IP Bill now looks set to become law. It was introduced with cross-party support and, despite the objections of many stakeholders, will be adopted in that fashion.

It is not just civil liberties’ organisations that have objected. Trade unions have too, especially the National Union of Journalists, along with the Society of Editors and many tech companies large and small.

Public bodies can conduct mass surveillance of data

All of their objections are important in themselves, but they are also related. In effect, the legislation allows the mass trawl of internet data and other records merely on the basis of suspicion of any crime, not just serious or terrorist crime.

A large number of public agencies will then be able to handle and to pass on that data, without either the internet service provider (ISP) or the target being informed.

At the same time, all voluntary organisations will be obliged to keep an “open door” for the security agencies, police and others to access their systems. As we know, this is too often an open door to the hackers as well. Either you have encryption, or you don’t.

This systematic transfer of powers to state bodies could have a wide-ranging commercial impact too. All companies handling data in the UK are only allowed to operate in the EU courtesy of a “data passport”, which recognises the equivalence of data protection regimes throughout the EU. But given the sweeping powers allowed in the IP Bill, many firms are concerned that the data passport would be withdrawn.

Internet companies may lose business in the EU

At that point, some very difficult choices will be faced by everyone from small internet startups to some of the giant global internet firms that have been established here. They may lose substantial business in the EU, or may choose to relocate here. In either event, jobs here could be under threat.

It is not clear that colleagues who have allowed these measures to go through, almost on the nod, fully understand these consequences of the IP Bill.

But that may not be the end of the matter. The IP Bill has a less draconian predecessor, the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (Dripa), which has been subject to legal challenge at the European Court of Justice (ECJ). It has not been used in a high-tech operation to target criminal masterminds and terrorist networks. There were well over half a million requests for data in 2014 alone.

Legal challenges against IP Bill likely

The interim judgement at the ECJ is highly critical of Dripa, which is less oppressive than the IP Bill. It seems likely that the ECJ will find against the government. Sections of Dripa could be struck down.

If that occurs, some form of legal challenge against the IP Bill seems highly likely once it becomes law. This could be a call for judicial review, or may result in another legal case.

It is now too late in the Parliamentary process to fundamentally alter the character of the legislation. But while the debate in the Parliament on the IP Bill may be drawing to a close, the arguments in wider society may be just beginning.

Read more about the Investigatory Powers Bill

Diane Abbott MP is the shadow home secretary, and Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington.

Read more on Privacy and data protection