Just before Christmas, Netpol made a submission to Joint Committee on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, which is examining the government’s proposed changes to legislation on the interception and retention of communications data and bulk personal datasets by the police and the security and intelligence agencies

UPDATED: 12 February 2016: on the issue of thematic warrants – the use of targeted interception against groups of people who share a common purpose – the Joint Committee has acknowledged in its report [pdf_icon, 3.4 Mb] that:

“Witnesses expressed concerns about the contexts in which these powers could be deployed. The Network for Police Monitoring highlighted the possibility that “in the context of protest policing, this extends the use of surveillance activities to any individual associated with a protest groups… Not only does the surveillance extend to individuals themselves engaging in (possibly low-level) criminal activity, it arbitrarily extends it to all individuals believed to share a ‘common purpose’ with them.”

The Committee goes on to call, in Recommendation 38, for an amendment to the the language of the Bill “so that targeted interception and targeted equipment interference warrants cannot be used as a way to issue thematic warrants concerning a very large number of people”.

Much of the opposition to the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill has rightly focused on requirements for internet providers to store records of websites visited for up to a year and on powers for the security services and police to hack into and bug computers and phones. Both already have a sorry track record of repeatedly abusing wide-reaching surveillance powers. Our submission sets out to tackle the impact on protest and looks specifically at one issue that we have raised before: how easy it is to use powers intended for ‘serious’ criminality against far more minor illegal actions that are almost overwhelmingly peaceful.

The draft Bill sticks with the existing definition of ‘serious crime’ within the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, allowing policing bodies to continue to carry out surveillance and interception of communications for the purpose of prevention and detection of any crime conducted by a ‘large number of persons’ with a ‘common purpose’ – arguably a dictionary definition of what constitutes political protest.

Our concerns extend to the use of communications data, where the lower threshold of preventing and detecting crime provides significant operational discretion to the authorities in relation to protest activity, particularly in “assessing the proportionality and necessity of surveillance” against a wide range of protest groups on the basis that it is necessary (and proportionate) to the need to challenge s-called ‘domestic extremism’.

HM Inspectorate of Constabulary criticised this vague categorisation of protesters in a review back in 2012, calling for a “tighter definition of domestic extremism”. The draft Bill makes no attempt to do so, even though Netpol has documented its repeated application to “single issue protest groups that engage in low-level criminality, including anti-fracking protest groups which adopt peaceful (albeit sometimes unlawful) methods of protest”.

Unless the Bill is amended, this looks set to continue, even though the specialist police units responsible for ‘domestic extremism’ are currently under scrutiny by a public inquiry for authorising the deployment of undercover police officers within protest groups.

Netpol’s submission to the Joint Committee on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill pdf_icon 78 kB