I’ve always had my suspicions about the Egg Marketing Inspectorate, and now I believe I know the truth.
The public face of this body is concerned with tracking down the likes of the Highgate Poultry Farm in North Yorkshire for marketing eggs outside the tolerance for grade ‘A’ (guilty), and the Planks of Stratford-upon-Avon for failing to mark loose free-range eggs (again, guilty).
So why, then, is the Egg Marketing Inspectorate still on the list of public authorities who will, if the Home Office has its way, have virtually unrestricted access to the details of every email sent or received, every Web site visited and every phone call made by every man, woman, child and organization in this country? Simple: its real job is tracking down egg-wielding terrorists.
The Egg Marketing Inspectorate has two pieces of legislation to aid it in this work: the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. Neither act on its own is of much use to the Egg Marketing Directorate in its fight against terrorism, but combined they form a formidable tool.
The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) has nothing to do with fighting terrorism, and everything to do with regulating how government agencies access data passing through the switchboards and switches of telcos, ISPs and other communications providers for their own investigations. Its conception was received in the assumption that it would be used to target individuals for specific investigations in the same way that phone taps have been used for decades.
One year later, along came the Terrorism Act 2001, and with it measures to ensure that every piece of communications data flowing through UK ISPs and telcos would be stored -- originally for seven years, but now after intense lobbying from all quarters, for 12 months. For the purpose of fighting terrorism, of course.
The Egg Marketing Directorate gets its powers because once all that data has been retained under the Terrorism Act for the purposes of fighting terrorism, RIPA can be used to access it -- and the Directorate is still on the latest list of public authorities to whom RIPA grants access.
Home Office Minister Caroline Flint says the government has "dramatically cut down" the number of organisations who will be allowed access to all communications data. In reality, the number has dropped from 25 to 24. Dramatic obviously means different things to different people. The Egg Marketing Directorate is joined by such leading lights in the fight against international terrorism as the Coal Health Claims Unit; the Personal Investment Authority; and your friendly Local Authority and all who sail in her.
But why do we care about all this? Data retention is regulated by the Terrorism Act and will therefore obviously never be used against regular people like you or me, even if we have been failing to mark loose free-range eggs.
Think again. Here's why.