Were David Cameron in any way adept at spin, it would be tempting to think that the publication of the Investigatory Powers Bill had been deliberately timed so as to coincide with the opening of Spectre, the new James Bond film. The debate over the bill has turned into a question of whether we trust our spies, which by and large we do. But the real question to be asked is whether we trust the taxman, the police and our town halls with the powers of espionage — and that is another matter entirely.
The Investigatory Powers Bill does not actually contain new powers for the security services, who can already tap phones and access emails and have done for decades. It’s quite true that our spooks are in a technological race with jihadis who use every new app and platform to communicate with each other and assume alternate identities. But our spies have stayed one step ahead and can identify terrorist targets, as attested by the recent RAF drone strike in Syria. They are not asking for more freedom, nor are they getting it.
The last time that Britain passed spying laws was in 2000, with the flawed Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. Talk at the time was — as ever — about the need for our spies to have proper powers (and this before the 11 September attacks). But before too long, Ripa was being used by nosey council enforcement types and police officers trawling through suspects’ computers on a hunch. Ripa didn’t reveal the secrets of the Blofelds and Goldfingers so much as those of ordinary law-abiding civilians. Jenny Paton, Tim Joyce and their three children, for instance, ended up being snooped upon by Poole council, which wrongly suspected they might be fibbing about their address in order to sneak the kids into a better primary school.