State snooping: Our massive accountability gap remains
This week's big report on the plethora of powers which allow the UK authorities to monitor and collect information on citizens was a clear and comprehensive round-up of a very confusing picture.
Understandably, terrorism and associated State snooping captured the headlines since the author, David Anderson QC, is the UK's independent reviewer of terrorism legislation.
But of equal concern to me is the sheer number of pieces of legislation that permit fairly lowly State and semi-State bodies the powers to secretly gather information on people. Like the BBC and councils, for instance.
Mr Anderson tabled many common sense recommendations in his 300-page report to unify, simplify, improve and allow greater scrutiny of this framework.
The current set-up is, he argues convincingly, "fragmented and obscure" and pre-dates the digital era.
However, in the autumn the Belfast Telegraph highlighted issues with the implementation of snooping powers in Northern Ireland.
The single biggest concern was the revelation in this column that, contrary to the law, we have never had an Investigatory Powers Commissioner.
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I contacted Mr Anderson some months back to draw his attention to this failure by the NIO. He was kind enough to highlight my submission in his Annex report and comment upon it in Chapter 12, section 84: "Finally, the statutorily required Northern Ireland Commissioner (RIPA s61) does not exist. Thus, it is submitted that these gaps must be closed (potentially by the use of a single regulator, as set out above)."
While happy that Mr Anderson took my submission, and associated Belfast Telegraph's news reports, into account, I am nevertheless disappointed at his lack of resolve to rectify it.
The reviewer is required by the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014 not just to examine UK security threats and capabilities, but also privacy safeguards, transparency and oversight.
In his report, Mr Anderson states that with "the need to promote trust in mind, I have formulated my recommendations on the basis of the following principles: minimise no-go areas, limited powers, rights compliance, clarity and a unified approach".
Here we have a key Government department ignoring UK statute. I would have expected him at least express disapproval.
It's not clear whether the Northern Ireland Office has failed to act because of inertia or that it is deliberately playing legal confusion to its advantage.
However, I believe that if the law requires Northern Ireland to have a Commissioner, then Mr Anderson should censure the Government for failing and/or refusing to create one.
It is essential this is rectified as doubtless it will take years for the UK to introduce a new over-arching approach as he suggests (if indeed it ever does). The gap is here and it is now.
Worryingly, it now appears that section 59 of the RIPA Act removes Northern Ireland from the jurisdiction of the Intelligence Services Commissioner for the rest of the UK. So it appears no one is properly safeguarding the RIPA interception and use of communications data here at all.
Once again we are left with this strong feeling that Northern Ireland is a place apart where normal rules apply, and yet somehow don't.
I cite the shambles in our inquest system as another example. Quite simply the years and even decades-long delays over inquests - not all of them Troubles-related - would not be tolerated in Britain. And neither, I submit, would Northern Ireland's State snooping accountability gap.