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All Around the Watchtower

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, because the Home Office is reportedly scaling-back its efforts to force through the legislation that will give government greater access to our email.

I’m particularly interested in this move because it was reported last summer, that the Computer Weekly column I wrote on the revisions to 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 ‘see’ his existing amendments to RIPA for unworkable Stalinist rubbish they were.

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 ‘re-think’, which this time, denies the right of local government ‘officials’, conceivably, even traffic wardens to trawl through your email 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 eleven 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 re-thought 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 of course 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 form 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, much like Thomas Cromwell in the time of King Henry VIII.

The legislation of the last five years has effectively undone much of the good work that started with Magna Carta and RIPA, is simply a manifestation of a different world where the clock started ticking on the morning of 9.11.


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