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Government’s “snooper’s charter” details revealed

Queen's Speech outlines "strict safeguards" to communications data access law

By Steve Evans

More details have emerged of the Government’s Draft Communications Data Bill, which could give it powers to monitor internet and communication data across the UK.

However as outlined in yesterday’s Queen’s Speech, the Bill will face "strict safeguards" and will also have to go through a number of hurdles before becoming law.

"My Government intends to bring forward measures to maintain the ability of the law enforcement and intelligence agencies to access vital communications data under strict safeguards to protect the public, subject to scrutiny of draft clauses," the Queen said during her speech at the state opening of parliament.

Under the plans the government wants to be able to access information such as what websites people have visited, including social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, and who they have interacted with online as well as mobile phone and text message information.

When the Bill, which has been called a ‘snooper’s charter’ by opponents, was originally announced the government stressed that the content of emails, text messages and so on would not be accessed without a warrant.

Among the new restrictions introduced include a 12-month limit on the storing of data by communication services providers (CSPs). Any data requested by the government would then be handed over to GCHQ for further investigation. The role of the Interception of Communications Commissioner will also be extended to oversee the collection of the data.

The government claims the new legislation is simply an update of existing laws to reflect the changing ways people communicate.

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The draft Bill is "vital" in helping law enforcement agencies to have "access to communications data so that they can bring offenders to justice," the Home Office said.

Unsurprisingly, the news has been met with a wave of criticism from privacy campaigners.

"Whether it is a draft Bill or not, if the Home Office needs to tread very, very carefully when it comes to proposing a level of online surveillance not seen in any other Western democracy," said Big Brother Watch. "The proposals will rightly be closely scrutinised in Parliament and I hope the Conservatives fulfil their commitment to immediately give the plans to the Information Commissioner for pre-legislative scrutiny."

"If someone is suspected of plotting an attack the powers already exist to tap their phone, read their email and follow them on the street. Instead of scaremongering the Home Office should come forward and engage with the debate about how we improve public safety, rather than pursue a policy that will indiscriminately spy on everyone online while the real threats are driven underground and escape surveillance," the statement added.

Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group told Sky News that the new laws will treat every UK citizen as a suspect.

"We’re really worried about these new plans for internet snooping, they represent a huge increase in the amount of surveillance government has that are really not appropriate. People need to be suspected before they’re surveilled – that’s how the law should work, but what the Government’s saying is: ‘Were going to treat you all as suspects, and ask you to trust us not to abuse that data.’"

"These are very dangerous measures – they cross a line, they take us from targeting people that we suspect, to targeting everybody and really lowering the barriers of what the Government can find out about you without going through a court," Killock added.

Speaking to CBR, Kathryn Wynn, senior associate, Pinsent Masons law firm, questioned whether the technology is available to do what the government wants.

"The devil will be in the detail here, but all that seems to have changed is the right to access this information in real time. Currently, ISP’s and telecoms are required to retain indentifying details of phone calls and emails, such as the traffic and location, to help the police detect and investigate serious crimes. The details exclude the content of those communications."

"Whether it is feasible or not to access real time communications data without the content of those communications being disclosed depends on whether there is the technology available to deliver that information quickly," Wynn added. "If such technology is not available then they will struggle to comply through no fault of their own. It is anticipated that intelligence authorities will face an ‘information overload’, trying to sift through millions of calls, emails, texts and web visits to find what they are looking for in real time, rather than analysing patterns in historic data."

Wynn also pointed out that the government will need to ensure that these measures do not breach the EU Data Protection Directive (implemented via the Data Protection Act 1998). "Once the proposed DP Regulation comes into force, the UK Government may be forced to re-visit the legislation to ensure that it is compatible with that DP Regulation," she told CBR.

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