The Haystack is a new documentary, released today by Scenes of Reason, bringing together leading lights for and against the UK's Investigatory Powers Bill. This unprecedented piece of legislation, which is now under parliamentary scrutiny, seeks to affirm and expand the surveillance remit of UK security services and other departments, including new powers for the police to access internet connection records -- a database of the public's online activity over the previous 12 months.
The film provides an excellent roundup of arguments on both sides of the tortuous surveillance debate, including Conservative MP Johnny Mercer echoing the well-worn refrain, if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group, speaking at the film's launch, quipped that Mr Mercer might feel a bit different if it were the left-wing government of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell wielding these powers. Indeed, as far-right parties attract support around Europe and the world, the likelihood increases of tremendous state surveillance becoming the plaything of ever more abusive regimes.
The immense capabilities contained within the bill are unpalatable in the hands of any authority – they are all too easily harnessed to undermine perfectly reasonable political opposition and judicial work. By way of example, the film outlines one such case where the current UK government improperly gained access to privileged details of a court case against it. In this light, the bill seems an intolerable threat to democracy and free expression.
Voices of concern from the security community, such as Sir David Omand, ex-GCHQ chief, explain that precautions against terrorism require more spying. Others reject this, noting that security services have failed to act on intelligence when they do have it – spending enormous sums on digital surveillance only reduces their efficacy in the realm of traditional detective work. Moreover, those costs, to be borne by government and industry, are excessive at a time of cuts to other public services designed to protect us from more conventional enemies, such as disease.
The debate is winding – this film helps straighten things out.
Find out more about the Investigatory Powers bill at the Open Rights Group.