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Coffee House

The government will not snoop on your every move

18 September 2012

11:00 AM

18 September 2012

11:00 AM

Nick Cohen (‘Nowhere to hide’, 15 September) raises some interesting points about the double-edged nature of the internet. I agree with this sentiment, although not for the same reasons.

Yes, the World Wide Web has brought about massive benefits, allowing people to communicate and connect in ways never before imagined. However it also has a down side. And this is that it affords criminals and those who wish to do us harm the same new ways to communicate and connect. It is this that concerns me, rather than Mr Cohen’s claim that it will allow, through our Communications Data Bill, the government to monitor your every move. This argument is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the Bill.

Firstly, the primary purpose of the Bill is to update the powers law enforcement bodies already have, to make them relevant to the 21st Century. It cannot make sense to enable the police to investigate crimes planned using a mobile phone but to say we should simply accept that their ability to respond to crimes planned or conducted over the internet will get less and less. And we are still only talking about who a criminal emailed and when – nothing about the content of that email.

Secondly, the Home Office does not want automatic access to every service people use to communicate. Under our proposals, the police and other authorities will only be able to access communications data in the course of an investigation, when it is necessary and proportionate to help solve crime and terrorism cases – to save lives and protect the public.

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Thirdly, criminals cannot simply circumvent detection. We are confident that the measures we are proposing would make it far less likely that this could happen. Without them there will indeed be large and growing gaps in our ability to prevent criminals going undetected. Some commentators claim that evading detection online is easy so the measures we are proposing are pointless. No government is going to comment on whether the methods such experts suggest criminals use actually work.

And finally, the Bill contains clear safeguards around our proposals. Any public servant who misuses information will not go unpunished. A number of offences already exist on the statute books to address situations where public officials, and other individuals, abuse access to personal data.

Misuse of communications data is likely to be part of criminal activity such as misuse of computer systems and hacking, all of which are offences and carrying heavy repercussions. Knowingly or recklessly obtaining or disclosing personal data, for example, carries a maximum penalty of an unlimited fine, while misconduct in public office can lead to life imprisonment.

More broadly, oversight of the use of the powers will be provided by the Interception of Communications Commissioner and the Information Commissioner, both of whom will report to Parliament each year on the use of the powers. These senior figures have shown in the past their independence and their willingness to hold public authorities to account.

The internet is indeed a mixed blessing, and it is right there is a debate about the proposals contained within the Bill.

But it is not the intrusion of the state into our private lives that people should be worried about here – this government has already abolished the intrusive ID cards scheme and scrapped the hugely disproportionate ContactPoint database – it is the prospect that, without taking action, we give paedophiles, terrorists and other criminals increasing scope to use this new technology to do us harm. And this is precisely what the Communications Data Bill is designed to stop.

James Brokenshire is Security Minister in the Home Office.

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