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Bishop of St Albans concerned about intelligence services’ ‘far-reaching’ powers

24 November 2023

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WHILE welcoming the Government’s sense of urgency in attempting to protect the security of the nation, the Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, has expressed concerns about both the implications and the ethics of the Investigatory Powers (Amendment) Bill.

The Bill is an update to the 2016 Investigatory Powers Act with the aim of reflecting current security threats in the light of rapidly changing technology. It gives the intelligence services powers to draw on an increased range of data.

“The proposed amendments give the intelligence services vastly expanded powers not only to investigate individuals but to harvest and exploit vast amounts of personal data — not just of crime or terror suspects, but of anyone,” Dr Smith told the House of Lords during the Second Reading of the Bill on Monday.

“The collection of bulk datasets of personal details, including facial images and social-media activity, is far reaching and potentially indiscriminate; so we must rightly be concerned about how effective any safeguards might be in controlling the power that such access gives to our intelligence services.”

He said that the risks were substantial. “The weakening of safeguards risks endorsing the need for updating surveillance capacity, at the same time as threatening basic human freedoms.”

Dr Smith also argued that the development of technical capacity was “well ahead” of ethical considerations. “Ethical thinking might well be deemed inconvenient by those who wish to forge ahead with greater advances and greater security provision. However, to fail to address ethical considerations now will simply leave us, at best, running fast to catch up later once the train has left the station and is already at full speed away in the far distance — and, at worst, having compromised personal and societal freedoms and having changed the nature of a free society.”

He said that the current proposals were likely to lead to “a broad and vague definition of ‘public safety’”, and that this represented a threat to personal freedom.

“No one would wish to stand in the way of His Majesty’s Government’s intention to tackle terrorism, state threats, serious organised crime such as child sexual exploitation, illegal migration, and fraud. These need to be faced head-on,” he continued. “The question is whether the proposed extensions contain sufficient safeguards to ensure that the mass of law-abiding citizens in a free society are not caught up in a form of mass surveillance in which they cannot trust that justice and privacy will be upheld.”

Lord Sharpe of Epsom, speaking for the Government, responded that the measures in the Bill were “underpinned by a robust and world-leading safeguards regime”.

He said: “Numerous safeguards exist to prevent the misuse of investigatory powers, ensuring that they are used in accordance with the law and in the public interest.”

He continued: “Strong safeguards are already in place to ensure that investigatory powers are used in a necessary and proportionate way. That includes independent oversight by the Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office and a right of redress through the Investigatory Powers Tribunal.

“The powers can be used only for the statutory purposes set out in the Act, including in connection with the most serious crimes and national security. We are also taking the opportunity to strengthen safeguards in other parts of the regime — for example, by creating a new statutory oversight regime for the intelligence agencies’ access to datasets held by third parties rather than retained by the agencies themselves.”

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