Rip up the RIP Act

For journalists to demand that other journalists be investigated under the RIP Act is like turkeys marching for more Christmases.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Politics

The Guardian is gutted that Scotland Yard has refused to reopen its investigation into alleged phone hacking by journalists at the News of the World. Its assistant editor, Michael White, bemoans the fact that where the Director of Public Prosecutions, the House of Commons’ culture, media and sport select committee and the Press Complaints Commission have promised to look afresh at what took place at the Sunday tabloid, Yard officials have said there’s ‘nothing new to investigate’, thus exposing themselves as ‘political coppers’ (1). After all, the NoTW possibly broke the law – the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, to be precise – and thus it should be investigated by the police, right?

In fact, if there’s one law worth breaking in Britain today, it’s the RIP Act. This is not some benign privacy-protecting statute that keeps nosy hacks out of our lives and conversations, as depicted by the Guardian and others in recent days; it is one of the most authoritarian, interventionist, surveillance-happy pieces of legislation that has been drafted by the New Labour government. It grants the state extraordinary powers to intercept our emails, monitor web traffic and force Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to hand over information about individual surfers in order that the authorities might, if they so wish, ‘obtain a picture of [a person’s] life, activities and associates’ (2). The RIP Act is the antithesis of freedom of speech – and for journalists to suggest, implicitly, that other journalists should be punished under it is the equivalent of turkeys marching to demand more Christmases.

Last week Nick Davies, who spearheaded the Guardian’s investigation into the News of the World, wrote what can only be described as a fluff piece about the RIP Act, explaining that it ‘makes it a criminal offence to intercept phone calls’ or ‘to gain access to material which is stored on a communication system, such as a voice message’. He pointed out that there is ‘no public interest defence for anybody caught breaking the RIP Act’, meaning that journalists cannot say they were justified in hacking into phone calls or voicemail. That is why Clive Goodman, former royal reporter for the News of the World, was imprisoned under the RIP Act for four months in 2007 for intercepting the voice messages of members of the royal family (3).

All of this is true – but what Davies fails to mention is that the reason the RIP Act makes a criminal offence of these various things is not because it is concerned with protecting people’s private lives from rogue journalists and private investigators, but because it wants to make clear that the state – and only the state – should have the right and the power to snoop on our private conversations and correspondence. The RIP Act regulates the investigatory powers of citizens, journalists, public bodies and others because it is designed jealously to preserve the power of investigation for approved state bodies only.

The RIP Act codifies massive state authority over citizens. Amongst other things it enables certain public bodies to demand that an ISP provide access to a customer’s communications – that is, to his emails and his surfing habits – in secret; it empowers certain public bodies to demand that an ISP install equipment for the purpose of facilitating surveillance; it enables the mass surveillance of communications in transit, including by the Government Technical Assistance Centre at MI5’s London headquarters, which was brought into existence by the RIP Act; and it enables certain public bodies to demand that an ISP or an individual hand over encryption keys for any encrypted email correspondence: those who refuse to do so, on the basis that they want their emails to remain private, can be imprisoned for two years (4).

When the RIP Act was first introduced in 2000, nine state organisations – including the police and the security services – could invoke its powers of surveillance. Today, as a result of updates and additions made to the Act, more than 700 organisations, including 470 local councils across the UK, can use it to spy on citizens. Different state bodies are permitted to do different things. For example, the Act codifies the power of the state to intercept our communications – by tapping our telephones, opening and reading our post, and gaining access to our emails – and this power can be evoked only by Defence Intelligence Staff, the Government Communications Headquarters, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), the Security Service (MI5), and certain territorial police forces. The Act also codifies the state’s authority to carry out intrusive surveillance – for example, bugging houses and vehicles – and that power can be used by all of the above security bodies as well as by the British Transport Police, the Royal Military Police, the Royal Air Force Police, Her Majesty’s Prison Service and the Northern Ireland Prison Service (5).

The Act also permits ‘lower level’ forms of state spying, for example ‘directed surveillance’ (following people and monitoring their daily activities) and the ‘use of communication data’ (that is, the ability to access information about our telecommunications activity without accessing the content itself). These powers can be invoked by the security agencies listed above, of course, and also by a vast array of other state bodies, including local councils, the Office of Fair Trading, the Financial Services Authority, the Serious Fraud Office and too many more to mention.

The grounds on which a state body can break into our email correspondence, open our post, tap our telephones, follow us through the street and find out what internet services we have subscribed to are promiscuously defined. Under the RIP Act, these things can be done if ‘it is judged to be necessary in the interests of national security; for the purpose of preventing or detecting crime or preventing disorder; or in the interests of the economic wellbeing of the UK; if it is in the interests of public safety, or for the purpose of protecting public health; or for the purpose of assessing or collecting any tax, duty or levy payable to a government department; or for the purpose in an emergency of preventing death or injury, any damage to a person’s physical or mental health; or mitigating any injury or damage to a person’s physical or mental health’ (6). This takes the old catch-all justification for state spying – National Security – and expands it enormously.

The RIP Act was rushed through parliament on the back of scares about internet crime and paedophilia. It was strengthened, after 11 September 2001 in particular, on the back of whipped-up fears of terrorism. Yet some of the uses of the Act in recent years really reveal how pettily authoritarian modern Britain has become. In April 2008, it was revealed that council officials in Dorset, England, evoked the RIP Act to put a mother, father and their three children under daily covert surveillance to see if they really did live in a certain school catchment area (7). Other councils have used the Act covertly to monitor everything from alleged fly-tipping to underage smoking and drinking and alleged breaches of planning regulations (8). The Daily Telegraph reported last year that local councils are carrying out around 1,000 covert surveillance operations under the RIP Act every month (9).

From giving itself the power to read every word we write and listen to every word we utter in the name of tackling allegedly big problems such as terrorism and paedophilia to enabling smaller state bodies to follow parents and their children to make sure they aren’t fibbing on their school application forms, the RIP Act legitimises both sweeping and spiteful state interventions into our daily lives.

The RIP Act powerfully diminishes our humanity; our words are no longer our own, our relationships are no longer sacrosanct. Under this Act, we are not really free citizens but objects of suspicion, whose every email and daily activity can potentially be monitored by the state, frequently unbeknownst to us, in the name of… well, anything really. That the Act also punishes some individuals and organisations for invading our privacy – for example Clive Goodman, and a bunch of corrupt police officers who were found guilty of hacking data for private investigations (10) – should not blind us to the fact that it does such things in order to underline that only the state should wield these powers. We should remember that, while it might be irritating to have some hack listen to your voice messages, such activity does not compare, not even remotely, to the state’s monitoring of our correspondence. It is infinitely worse for the state, with its immense powers of punishment and imprisonment, to have authority over our communications than it is for a journalist to listen in as Prince Harry talks bollocks to Chelsy.

It is extraordinary that journalists should seem implicitly to invite the authorities to use the RIP Act to investigate other journalists. This is to invite the state to curtail the activities of a profession which is, ostensibly, about taking risks and sometimes bending the rules in order to uncover stories and find the truth. In 2007, Silvio Berlusconi, then the Italian opposition leader, was extremely embarrassed when a recording of one of his telephone conversations made by anti-corruption investigators was leaked to journalists and widely publicised; he responded this year, now Italian PM, by instituting a new Wiretapping Bill which makes it far harder for anybody to listen to or publicise the conversations of those in authority. He was, reportedly, inspired by British legislation (11). The RIP Act should not be enforced against journalists – it should be torn up, every last page.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

A bad free press is better than the alternative, by Mick Hume

Why I broke the law, by Tessa Mayes

Read more at spiked issue Privacy.

 

(1) I make this 3-1 to the Guardian, Guardian Politics Blog, 10 July 2009

(2) MI5 bugging exempt from privacy act, Guardian, 27 March 2000

(3) Nine charges for News of the World royal editor, Guardian, 10 August 2006

(4) Why you should care about the RIP Act, ZDnet, 15 August 2006

(5) Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000

(6) No 10 defends plans to change access to records, Guardian, 11 June 2002

(7) Council admits spying on family, BBC News, 10 April 2008

(8) Second council admits using anti-terror surveillance over school places, Daily Telegraph, 4 July 2008

(9) Second council admits using anti-terror surveillance over school places, Daily Telegraph, 4 July 2008

(10) Sex men jailed for misconduct, Metropolitan Police, 10 October 2007

(11) Berlusconi wiretap bill will curtail press freedom, European Tribune, 11 June 2009

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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