Metadata surveillance: the issue which won’t be allowed to disappear

This blog returns to what I hope will be more frequent publication after an unintended break with a small item of good news. How often do blog-writers throw out appeals, queries and rhetorical questions and hear nothing but silence? Frequently.

In the wake of the Snowden revelations about the scale of electronic communications surveillance by the NSA and its international partners, I wrote a short post a few months back underlining why journalists should worry about “metadata”. To journalists particularly, the issue of whether the snoopers, tappers and buggers are reading your email or merely tracking who you email and when (metadata is the latter) isn’t important.

A source can be identified by a list of emails and calls even if the authorities don’t have the content of those exchanges. Indeed, there are active cases in the US which suggest that the American government is doing precisely that. In the long history of keeping reporting free of the state, this may turn out to be a more important issue than the British media’s debate over regulation in the wake of phone-hacking and the Leveson Inquiry.

I suggested in February that someone should test whether the indiscriminate collection of this kind of information was a threat to free expression and a breach of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. It’s not an open and shut case, but surely something worth trying.

And someone has: I’m delighted to say it’s the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which could not have a more direct and obvious stake in the issue (declaration: I’m a BIJ trustee). The case has so far only been registered and ECHR cases take some time, but it will be a useful test. The hinge of the case is likely to be not the right to conduct secret surveillance at all but the scale of communications information which can be harvested by the state. Watch this space.

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