For a long time now, the Royal Mail has been a service that prided itself on confidentiality. Historian, David Vincent, noted in his 1998 book, The Culture of Secrecy in Britain 1832-1998, that one of the first major scandals over surveillance in the modern era was the 1844 scandal when an Italian exile, Joseph Mazzini, who was resident in London, discovered that the British government were secretly opening his mail. The prompted discussion in the House of Commons and outrage that such low ‘foreign’ practices were taking place in Britain.
In reality, of course the mail of targets of intelligence services is opened and read regularly, but in law in the UK, if mail is going to be opened – and this can only be done by HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) – the recipient has to be notified and present when it is done. Indeed, it’s been one of the characteristic complaints about many different states’ recent attempts to extend so-called ‘lawful access’ provisions to electronic mail and Internet sites by requiring ISPs to retain traffic data and provide it to the state upon request, that this goes far beyond what has ever been done with mail, except in totalitarian societies like the former East Germany, whose Stasi were notorious for opening letters either secretly or in many cases, quite openly.
So, the UK has now, it seems, decided to redress the balance. It will not of course, hold back on the lawful access provisions regarding electronic communications in the Telecommunications Bill. No, of course not. Instead, according to the Guardian this weekend, it is planning what they had probably hoped would be a quiet little amendment to the Postal Services Act, removing any requirement to notify people when their mail is to be opened. I am sure there will be the usual ‘safeguards’ and ‘codes of conduct’, in other words, the voluntary provisions which hae characterised recent British government’s pathetic and limited attempts to provide for privacy and other civil rights. But essentially, this is the end of any generalised assumption of confidentiality of the mail in Britain. It runs contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights (and therefore the UK Human Rights Act too). Every time you think there is no way the government could get any more repressive and get away with it, they do – will it be different this time?