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Covert coppers reach for surveillance lead

ICO looks on

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One of the UK's top covert coppers has defended his record of spying on citizens as privacy officials wonder whether surveillance technology is giving him too much power.

Just 21 years after Britain's spooks were reined in by the Interception of Communications Act (1985), the means of state surveillance have become so powerful and widespread that it begs the question whether the secret services ought to have their powers checked in other ways to compensate?

Privacy officials at the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) in the UK say it is a question that has dawned on them, and they are thinking about it, but it's still too early to tell. Sure, they are concerned that regular plods have been getting their hands on so many James Bond toys, but the security services have always spied on people.

Hence, they think it's a good thing that doing so is becoming so much easier with new technology, as The Register found out when it asked UK Serious and Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) chair and and former director general of MI5 Sir Stephen Lander this question on the proportionate use of state surveillance in civil society.

"The laws of physics apply to everybody," he said. "Criminals have the same capabilities and they are going to use them."

That argument hasn't stopped academics turning to totalitarian examples in history when they think about the powers the security services are gaining today, the Stasi being a current source of inspiration.

But Lander had little patience for such ideas. The British people have a "remedy against abuse" by the secret services, he said, whereas East Europeans under the Stasi had no recourse.

A run of laws since 1985 have put restraints on the British intelligence services, which Lander said were welcomed, because the agencies work better if they know their legal boundaries. The watchers are watched by an ombudsman and regularly challenged in court over their methods.

What more the ICO can or should do to check the growing power of the security services is as unclear as the ICO is unsure, and more so as the government is talking of the security industry as much as an economic boon to help us keep up with the booming Asian giants as it is a means to prevent terrorism or other social ills.

Indeed, the government's view of civil security tallies with Lander's, which can be taken as a rough justification for an investment in civil security to match the post-war arms race, in which governments use more draconian technologies to stop crime, criminals resort to more extreme measures to subvert them, and governments use that to justify a yet more draconian application of technology for law enforcement, but we all do very nicely out of it, thank you.

The undue influence of the military-industrial complex over civil policy has been cause of concern before, but not enough to prevent the government playing with the idea of bringing the military and intelligence services closer to civil society, as suggested in a Parliamentary written answer given by Chancellor Gordon last Thursday.

Brown said the terrorist threat blurred "traditional distinctions between homeland and international security", so much so that his next Comprehensive Spending Review would consider "the case for a single security budget".

All which makes the following suggestions from the ICO that Lander's justification for increasing his powers of surveillance lacks moral authority sound rather weak: "Just because criminals use it, doesn't mean we should. There are some things as a society we say we are not going to do," said one senior privacy officer.

The question is whether this is one of them. ®

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