The National Crime Agency (NCA) – or ‘Britain’s FBI’ – was launched this week. Tasked to tackle the most serious organised crime as well as issues including child protection and cybercrime, its director general has warned that ‘…no one will be beyond the reach’ of the NCA. While of course few could argue a well funded ( £463 million annual budget) and well run task force dealing with the higher echelons of the criminal underworld is a bad thing, questions have been raised over the extent of the NCA’s ‘reach’.
Unlike any other police force in the UK, the NCA will not be subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Under the FOIA, individuals and companies have a general right to ask whether public authorities hold certain information, and if they do, to make a request for that information. Advocates of the exemption argue that such information requests would ‘jeopardise operational effectiveness and ultimately result in lower levels of protection for the public’ while critics point to the national security exemption already in place under the FOIA as enough to counteract any detrimental impact. Debate will no doubt continue but given the NCA has access to some of the most advanced surveillance technology and that the agency is only accountable to the Home Secretary, the fact remains that there is certainly scope for unwarranted intrusions into the privacy of individuals and businesses.
Only time will tell how the NCA performs, however, unlike its predecessors the agency promises to be open and transparent about both their successes and failures so we may not have to wait too long to find out. This of course does not detract from the ever worrying ‘big brother’ nature of these government organisations and with the GCHQ now under scrutiny in the EU courts for their surveillance techniques we are all entitled to have concerns about whether we are being ‘watched’. That said, given we can’t request whether there is in fact any information on us perhaps it is as simple as what you don’t know can’t hurt you.