New surveillance law proposed to track mobiles

The three main political parties in the UK are in talks about introducing a new emergency law that would require phone companies to log records of phone calls, texts and internet usage.

Home Office to spearhead £4 million awareness campaign
Home Office to spearhead £4 million awareness campaign

The action comes on the back of concerns around returning radicalised British Muslims who travelled to fight in Syria, and the impact from Edward Snowden's continued revelations on the activities of the NSA and GCHQ.

The government was forced to step back on its surveillance of mobile phones in April, when the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that an EU data directive, introduced by the Labour government in 2009, was too sweeping and invalided the privacy of EU citizens.

The law stipulated that communications companies must store usage and location data on customer activities for six to 24 months.

But the UK government has now won backing from Labour to restore a similar surveillance programme under domestic legislation, but the bill could face opposition from the Liberal Democrats, who have warned that any initiative could revive the 'Snooper's Charter' – the communications data bill that split the coalition before it was abandoned in 2013.

A Lib Dem source told The Guardian: "There is no question of a snooper's charter, watered down or otherwise, being introduced by this government."

The new legislation – if approved – would see the government collect mobile communications data, including web pages visited. Labour is expected to argue that a ‘sunset clause' should be included, so that the law is reviewed after a set period of time.

Emma Carr, acting director of Big Brother Watch, told SCMagazineUK.com that the move would be ‘reckless' in the face of what goes before it.

“It would be reckless to attempt to legislate on further surveillance powers before a comprehensive, independent review of the existing legal framework has taken place,” she said by email. “A broad political consensus has emerged in support of a comprehensive review in recognition of the fact that the public should know more about how existing surveillance laws are being used and whether the current oversight mechanisms are adequate.

“It is a basic principle of a free society that you don't monitor people who are not under suspicion. Considering the Snoopers Charter has already been rejected by the public as well as by the highest court in Europe, it is essential that the government does not rush head-first into creating new legislation.

 “The EU's data retention laws privatised snooping, meaning companies were paid by governments to record what citizens were doing and retain that information for a year. We need to get back to a point where the police monitor people who are actually suspected of wrongdoing and rather than wasting millions every year requiring data to be stored on an indiscriminate basis."

The Open Rights Group also criticised the move.

“The real reason they need to legislate on data retention is that they are asking ISPs to operate illegally by retaining data, since the CJEU struck the Data Retention Directive down,” said the group in a statement.

“The government knows they are at high risk of legal action from ORG (Open Rights Group), Privacy International, Liberty and others, and of that legal action succeeding. ORG wrote to the government to ask it to stop trying to enforce EU data retention laws, as they had been invalidated. Thousands of ORG supporters wrote to ISPs  to ask them to stop retaining their data illegally. One way or another, this law is likely to be struck down, and the government knows it.

“It is courts that decide what the law is, not governments. Parliament legislates, and governments must obey the law. The government does not decide what the law is.” Seven UK ISPs last week took legal action against GCHQ.

Adrian Culley, an independent security consultant, told SC UK that a balance needs to be struck between privacy and security, but urged government officials to make the powers time-limited, as requested by Labour.

“Should stronger powers be granted by parliament, it would be highly desirable that they are strictly time limited, and contain a 'Sunset' expiry clause, requiring the executive use of the law be very closely monitored, and the law will expire without fresh parliamentary debate to sanction its on-going use. We have precedent for this with various emergency powers and anti-terrorism legislation over the past 50 years. Oversight is key.”

In related news, the Department of Transport (DoT) is proposing that any electronic device that has a flat battery will not be allowed on America-bound flights. Officials are advising people to “make sure electronic devices are charged before travel,” warning: “If your device doesn't switch on, you won't be allowed to bring it onto the aircraft.”

This announcement is said to have followed American spies receiving intelligence from a “credible threat” from terror groups based in Syria and Yemen that might use the battery cavity for explosives, and comes after rumours that the NSA and GCHQ can spy on hibernating smartphones.