UK Anti-Terror Powers Abused To Hunt Down Whistleblower Who Revealed Secret Government Tax Deal
from the shocked-to-the-bones dept
The UK government continues to claim that its spying activities are lawful, without specifying exactly why. However, it's pretty clear that the main law it is depending on is the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA). As Techdirt reported in January, there are serious doubts about whether GCHQ's surveillance activities are indeed covered by RIPA, but that's not the only problem here: the following story from The Guardian shows how RIPA is being abused -- not to find terrorists trying to bring down the state, but to winkle out whistleblowers selflessly trying to help it:
MPs have criticised Britain's leading tax official after HM Revenue & Customs [HMRC -- the UK tax authority] used powers meant to catch terrorists to hunt down an employee who exposed a secret multimillion-pound "sweetheart" deal with Goldman Sachs.
In 2011, Mba had written in confidence to various government bodies, saying that the then head of UK tax, Dave Hartnett, had "let off" Goldman Sachs from paying at least £10m in interest. But instead of being grateful for this information, the tax authorities seemed more interested in hounding him:
Lin Homer, the chief executive of HMRC, had told the public accounts committee that phone records had been obtained using the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) to unearth information about Osita Mba, an in-house lawyer.
When HMRC discovered Mba's intervention, his belongings, emails, internet search records and phone calls and the phone records of his then wife, Claudia, were examined by investigators.
HMRC's abuse of RIPA extended to investigating Mba's communications with a Guardian journalist:
At the committee meeting, Hodge also asked whether it was appropriate to pass Mba's wife's address, mobile number and office number to HMRC staff to investigate.
Margaret Hodge, the chair of the [Parliamentary] committee, said that HMRC's use of the powers, ostensibly to track down whether Mba had been talking to the Guardian's then investigations editor, David Leigh, had "shocked her to her bones".
Hodge went on to ask for assurances that HMRC would never again use RIPA powers on a whistleblower:
[Tax chief] Homer declined to offer Hodge the desired reassurance, responding: "You know that we cannot offer carte blanche assurances for evermore that we won't use these -- I have other duties of care to parliament and other individuals."
That refusal underlines why the UK's RIPA needs serious revision -- both to stop this kind of abuse, and to bring some much-needed scrutiny to the legal basis for GCHQ's massive surveillance activities.