As the United Kingdom puts into place a law increasing the government’s secret access to private citizen digital data, a commission is also making recommendations that could increase criminal penalties for exposing information the government wants to keep to itself.
The Law Commission, an independent U.K. agency that puts together recommendations to reform the legal code, is in the midst of suggesting updates to the laws that monitor and punish leaks of sensitive government data. It just put out a massive report that among other things, recommends the possibility of increasing criminal penalties from a two-year maximum to maybe 14 years depending on the situation. It also suggests the idea that simply receiving sensitive information can be worthy of criminal penalties, not just disseminating it. And it warns against the creation of a specific statutory defense where those accused of violating the law could claim disseminating the government information was in the public’s interest.
The Guardian, the U.K.-based newspaper which broke the initial stories about the surveillance information leaked by Edward Snowden, noted that this seemed very much like an effort to target whistleblowers in the media in order to protect state secrets. In addition to the concerns about the recommendations, apparently the Law Commission is acting as though it had “consulted” media and civil liberties groups, but those parties say they just had what they thought were less formal discussions about it:
The Guardian also held only one preliminary meeting with the government’s legal advisers and was not consulted before being listed in the report. A spokesperson said: “The proposals to threaten journalists and whistleblowers with draconian punishment, combined with powers just introduced in the  Investigatory Powers Act to surveil journalists without their knowledge, represent a further attack on freedom of expression.
“We are surprised that a roundtable discussion with the Law Commission, which they billed as a ‘general chat’, has been described as formal consultation, and concerned that despite being told that we would be informed about the progress of these plans, the first we knew about them was when the law commissioner put pen to paper in the Daily Telegraph last week.”
Killock said: “This is a full-frontal attack, recommending criminalising even examining secret services’ material. The intention is to stop the public from ever knowing that any secret agency has ever broken the law.
The government is already stepping back a bit from the recommendations. This process began under the previous administration and was inherited by U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May. A source told The Guardian that it would not be the government’s policy to attempt to punish journalists and public service whistleblowers.
But the law to increase the surveillance authorities by British government agencies was entirely May’s baby. She fought for it prior to becoming prime minister and essentially brought the Investigatory Powers Act with her. She is a surveillance state-supporting leader, and British citizens should be deeply suspicious of her intent when it comes to protecting their rights.
Over here in the United States, in the wake of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn resigning over leaks of conversations between him and the Russian government, we have this tweet from President Donald Trump:
The real story here is why are there so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington? Will these leaks be happening as I deal on N.Korea etc?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 14, 2017
Trevor Timm today notes over at the Columbia Journalism Review that even with an administration in office for less than a month, leaks to the media are playing an important role in preventing some potentially dangerous policies or decisions from being implemented. Given Trump’s dislike of the press, we should be concerned about any ideas from England to make punishments for leaks harsher arriving on American shores.