Over a year ago, the Government proposed to increase the available powers of surveillance – giving authorities the ability to monitor every British citizen’s internet activities. It is claimed that such powers are essential to keep pace with tackling crime and terrorism; even though such proposals were ditched by the last Government.
Their plans faced substantial opposition across Parliament, from the public, internet experts and civil liberties groups. Interestingly, the Government’s current plans bear little difference and continue to face similar oppositions.
A Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament, alongside the Intelligence and Security Select Committee conducted pre-legislative scrutiny of the Communications Data Bill. Both committees expressed clear concerns about the proportionality, cost and most importantly the scope of the proposals.
The Bill sought to extend the wide net of already existing surveillance powers to include every telephone call, e-mail, piece of internet usage, text message – and even, as some civil liberties organisations claimed, postcards. It would have created a federated database containing the personal data of every UK citizen, innocent or otherwise.
Following the two committee reports, the Government took the correct decision to withdraw the Bill for redrafting. However, even with the limited information currently available about the future of the Bill, deep concerns remain.
Each and every one of the concerns comes back to the fundamental criticism expressed by the two committees – the intended scope of the proposals. As with every piece of legislation the devil is always hidden well within the detail; and there are always unintended or expected consequences – but there has been a failure to explain how this legislation can seek to manage and investigate such a large volume of data in anything other than a scattergun approach.
There is also that important question about who will have access to such data, especially when such large volumes of it could inadvertently and incorrectly indicate suspicious behaviour.
A Freedom of Information request recently carried out by the organisation Big Brother Watch highlighted the large number of public authorities clamouring to get their hands on this vast mine of data. They included those who I would rightly expect to have access such as the Serious Fraud Office; to those who I cannot understand why they would ever need access – such as the Royal Mail, the Health and Safety Executive and the Charity Commission.
I have even received representations from my own Local Authority, Enfield Council – calling on me to support the Cabinet Member for Environment’s wish to be granted access to communications data once the redrafted Bill comes back to Parliament.
Given the numerous examples of local authorities using already existing surveillance powers in manners for which they were never intended – such as to catch those living outside school catchment areas or monitoring the illegal movement of pigs – why on earth would they also need access to their residents’ communications data?
While we must be fully prepared for those who reject these concerns via the old mantra ‘if you have nothing to hide’ – it should be questioned why such personal data, in such large quantities would ever be needed unless specific elements were acquired via a judicial warrant for the investigation of the most serious crimes.
The return of the Communications Data Bill to Parliament is awaited with baited breath and it is sincerely hope that the Government has taken onboard the concerns expressed by not only Parliamentarians but also members of the public and internet experts – who after all will be tasked with designing and implementing the system.
Communications providers, such as Yahoo and Google, who would actually be those responsible for collecting all of the data, have been steadfast in their opposition – they simply don’t believe a system such as the one proposed will ever work.
Not only do they have their doubts about the Government’s ability to run such a large scale federated database, they also know that because of the various encryption techniques they use to keep our data safe – the Government will struggle to decode it.
This begs the question that if, for example, even just one communication company’s data would be immune from the surveillance techniques expected to be used – what is the point? This would surely lead to a system where those with something to hide can easily circumvent the system and those with nothing to hide are the ones left being monitored.
While there are clearly situations where communications data is incredibly valuable – for it to be available in such a scattergun manner and in such large volumes will help neither the law enforcement agencies who are reliant upon it, nor protect law-abiding citizens from a seemingly ever-encroaching surveillance state.
Nick de Bois is Conservative MP for Enfield North.