DRIP: What you need to know about the Government's controversial surveillance bill

The Data Retention and Investigatory Powers bill was rushed through parliament as an emergency act in July, but it’s raised huge questions of the government’s methods and motives. Here we look at what the bill is and why its such an issue.

The government was at the heart of a storm in July when it rushed a piece of new legislation through Parliament, leaving privacy advocates up in arms. The Data Retention and Investigatory Powers bill (DRIP), is designed to ensure that ISPs and telephone companies retain data about customers’ calls and internet activities for twelve months, which the government and security services can then use as part of their investigations.

The reason for the bill is to counteract a European Court of Justice ruling that was handed down in April, making it unlawful for this kind of data to be stored as it was a violation of basic human rights. The DRIP supporters, including the vast majority of both sides of the house and leaders of all the main political parties, argue that this kind of data is needed to capture paedophiles and prevent terrorist acts, with Conservative peer Lord Taylor of Holbeach stating that ‘If we do not take urgent action, lives could be lost.’ Home Secretary Theresa May was also unequivocal in the need for the legislation, stating that ‘if we delay we face the appalling prospect police operations will go dark, that trails will go cold, that terrorist plots will go undetected; if that happens, innocent lives may be lost.’

While many would concede that intelligence agencies exist to utilise these sort of practices, and that no matter how uncomfortable this makes us feel, there is a solid argument for it, the main concern that was raised with DRIP was the unseemly way that the government pushed it through so quickly, giving MPs only one day to read, debate and vote on the bill. There was also the factor that even though the government insisted DRIP wouldn’t increase its surveillance powers, merely maintain the status quo, careful analysis of the bill suggested otherwise.

‘Parliament has done a terrible thing’ wrote Jim Killock, Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, ‘They’ve ignored a court judgment and shoved complex law through a legislative mincer in just three days...Frankly, the Government was evasive and duplicitous, and they were in a hurry to cover their tracks.’

Shami Chakrabarti, Director at the human rights charity Liberty, also commented after the bill was passed that ‘Far from "maintaining the status quo" last week’s political stitch-up, published after a behind-closed-doors agreement between Messrs Cameron, Clegg and Miliband, grants Ministers astonishing new powers to pursue their thwarted “Snoopers’ Charter” – not just in this country, but across the globe. The Snoopers' Charter was torn apart by Parliamentary scrutiny. The Government’s answer? Do away with democratic oversight.’

It wasn’t just advocacy groups who voiced concerns about the rapid nature of the bill, with several MPs commenting that more time was needed to review the possible implications of such powers being handed to security agencies. Labour MP Tom Watson launched a withering attack, stating that it represented  ‘democratic banditry, resonant of a rogue state. The people who put this shady deal together should be ashamed.’

While around 50 MPs did rebel against DRIP, the bill was passed with an overwhelming majority. This might suggest a busy night in Parliament, but the sad truth was only a handful of MPs even attended the House to discuss the controversial legislation. Paul Bernal, a lecturer at University of East Anglia Law School, tweeted a picture of the scene (shown at the top of this article) with the comment ‘This is how seriously our MPs take privacy. Key, critical debate. Almost no-one here.’

Balancing the need for security, law enforcement, and investigatory powers against a citizen’s right to privacy is a huge political challenge. Edward Snowden has already shown how far intelligence agencies are willing to go, with both the NSA and GCHQ using questionable methods in their efforts to ensure a populations’ safety. With more of life moving online these debates are set to continue, which is why having time to discuss them thoroughly and maturely remains of the utmost importance. DRIP may have passed the vote, but the story hasn’t ended yet, as part of a conciliatory measure the bill has a ‘sunset clause’ that means its power expire in 2016.

Then there’s the more immediate issue that on July 18th the Open Rights Group announced its intentions to take the government to court over the DRIP legislation. Privacy might seem like an almost moot point in an age where so much happens on the web and can be easily found, but the landscape is changing quickly, and laws that are made now could have long lasting repercussions. This is one case that’s most definitely worth watching.