RIPA: Catching terrorists by watching you

Matt Loney: The latest section of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act allows a wide number of bodies to track your communications - but there is a loophole just big enough for organised crime to slip through.

In two weeks, law enforcement agencies will be able to obtain a warrant that will let them snoop on almost every piece of digital data that passes through an ISP in the UK.

That means that in addition to tracking which Web sites an individual visits, law enforcement officers will be able to read that individual's emails and faxes. When these new powers were being written into the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, the then home secretary, Jack Straw, said they were being introduced to bring the tapping of digital communications into line with telephone and mail interception.

Interception of digital communications had to be legislated on for two reasons, we were told. First, companies were at the time intercepting the employee emails and phone calls as well as tracking the Web sites they visit almost as a matter of course. While phone call monitoring was and is already governed by legislation, there were no laws governing interception of emails and tracking of Internet use. The RIP Act, together with the updated Data Protection Act (1998), addressed these dichotomies, even if they did not clarify them.

But the real reason for the RIP Act, we were told, was to catch criminals: we're talking terrorists and organised criminals here.

However, two recent developments give the lie to this argument and demonstrate that the government is not as interested in the private lives of terrorists as it is in the private lives of regular individuals.

In June we discovered that the Home Office, now under the control of David Blunkett, was to introduce a statutory instrument that would expand beyond the expectations of even the most paranoid privacy campaigners the list of government departments that could obtain warrants to snoop on your communications.

Many observers conceded the logic that, if we are to have a snooping Act, then there is an argument for giving snooping powers to organisations such as the police and Customs and Excise. Some even concede that the secret services should be on the list. But the Department of Health, the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, the Department for Work and Pensions? Step forward that famous crime fighting trio: Dr Kildare, Thomas the Tank Engine and Old Mother Hubbard.

The situation, which was already well beyond the sublime, entered the far reaches of the ridiculous when the Food Standards Agency and the Post Office were added to the list. To the best of my knowledge, none of these organisations are foremost in the fight against terrorism and organised crime.

But, in a rare moment of lucidity and sense (brought about only when the mass media finally caught on to what was happening), David Blunkett performed a sharp about turn and abandoned that particular order. Even so, the wide range of bodies that the Home Office had considered should be able to intercept communications is a clear indication of the real targets of the snooping laws: you and me.

Further evidence of this suspicion is provided by another statutory instrument called the Draft Regulation of Investigatory Powers (Maintenance of Interception Capability) Order 2002, which brings into effect on 1 August the part of RIPA that deals with interception. The draft of this Order, which the Home Office informs me is to be debated in the House of Lords this week, limits RIPA to those ISPs that intend to provide a public telecommunications service to more than 10,000 people in the UK.

So how does any self-respecting terrorist or criminal organisation stop their communications being intercepted by the police? I'll leave that one for you to figure out. Meanwhile those regular, law-abiding citizens who were seduced into signing up with AOL by that company's irritating on-screen persona Connie are fair game.

All in all, the Home Office's assertions that RIPA was brought in to help catch terrorists and organised criminals seems to fall flatter than PC Plod's feet.

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