Yesterday Parliament moved a step closer to passing emergency snooping laws, which would allow the security services to continue to store our mobile phone and email data. The House of Lords will take up the issue today.
The Government claim the rushed-through laws are essential to fight terrorism, paedophilia, and organised crime, and only allow the authorities to retain their current powers.
However, the suspicion is that this is a way of pushing through more Government snooping on people, something we are all far more wary of after the Edward Snowden revelations.
Perhaps with the post-Snowden outcry in mind, some concessions to civil liberties were announced. The legislation is meant to expire at the end of 2016, and the Government also announced a full review in 2016 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA). The controversial legislation from 2000 allows for interception of communications.
It’s taken 16 years to review technology legislation. Nothing like keeping up to date with tech, is there?
The Snoopers Charter, the catchier title given to the Communications Data Bill which proposes far reaching data intercept powers, was introduced in 2012. However there was widespread outcry by the public and privacy groups, and it was blocked by the Liberal Democrats in Government.
Then on 8th April this year, the Court of Justice of the European Union declared that “by adopting the Data Retention Directive the EU legislature has exceeded the limits imposed by compliance with the principle of proportionality.”
In English this means that the data retention requirements were excessive, and that blanket data retention is not ok. That ruling has prompted a rethink of UK legislation, and so the new laws are now being rammed through Parliament.
PM, DPM, and Home Secretary says powers are essential for safety
In a rare joint press conference last week, David Cameron and Nick Clegg tried to explain the development, saying it was needed for security. Clegg emphasised that “we will introduce new checks and balances to protect privacy and civil liberties”, while Cameron said that the time to debate would come in the future. Not very reassuring to those with concerns.
In a statement to the House of Commons later that same day, Home Secretary Theresa May said it was “vital” that “the ‘who, where, when and how’ of communication but not its content’ was collected by the security services. Without these powers, she said, “we would not be able to keep the public safe.”
It’s fair to say not everyone agrees with that.
Emma Carr, the Acting Director of privacy and civil liberties campaign organisation Big Brother Watch, said:
We need to get back to a point where the police monitor people who are actually suspected of wrongdoing, rather than wasting millions every year requiring data to be stored on an indiscriminate basis.
May also faced the Home Affairs select committee on Monday. She reiterated many of the points from the previous week, and emphasised that this was not a land grab for new surveillance powers, but just sorting out the legal framework of current ones:
It is absolutely clear that this is about putting current powers into primary legislation.
Rushed legislation is bad legislation
There has been major concern about the speed with which this legislation is being introduced. The Government want it in law by the time Parliament goes on its summer holiday early next week. This is hideously little time to look at such important laws.
Carr also commented that “the fact that there have been three months between the ECJ ruling and this point, yet we are being told that legislation must be rushed through as a matter of urgency, is simply unacceptable.”
Indeed, even a senior Lib Dem source I spoke to conceded that it was “not ideal that it was done in this way”.
Snowden also piled into the debate, telling The Guardian that the sudden priority of the legislation “defies belief”.
Despite all of this, the legislation was nodded through Parliament.
There are undoubtedly some good safeguards in the legislation, and the possibility of finally ripping up RIPA is to be welcomed, although I wasn’t entirely convinced when Lib Dem MP Dr. Julian Huppert told me that this was a “pro-civil liberties package.”
Throughout this process, Home Secretary Theresa May has declared that she wanted the Communications Data Bill back if the Conservatives are in Government. It is clear where she and David Cameron want to move next.
Recent developments could then be the thin end of the wedge, leading to further erosions of our digital civil liberties and right to privacy.