UK government to increase surveillance

The British government looks set to pass the Data Retention and Investigations Powers Bill - a law which will allow police and security services to access people's phone and internet records from telcos and ISPs.

UK government to increase surveillance
UK government to increase surveillance

The news comes days after all three main political parties backed the incoming legislation, which – according to British Prime Minister David Cameron – is required to fight “criminals and terrorists”.

The law will force telcos to log customer information for government investigations, and they will have to retain this data – which could span from text messages to internet browsing history – for 12 months. During this time, intelligence agents would be able to access any content so long as they had an order signed off by a government official.

In slightly brighter news for the telecommunications industry – not least in light of Privacy International and seven ISPs taking legal action against GCHQ - the law will see the creation of a new Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board to examine the impact of the law on privacy and civil liberties. The controversial Regulation of Investigations Power Act (RIPA 2000) will also be reviewed, while the government will be required to submit annual transparency reports on how these powers are used.

Furthermore, the Data Retention and Investigations Powers Bill has a so-called ‘Sunset Clause' so that the powers will end in 2016.

The law is controversial not least because it comes just three months after the European Court of Justice in April ruled that an existing EU data directive on mobile data collection invalidated the privacy of EU citizens.

Labour MP Tom Watson said that the law was a “stitch-up” as MPs would not get time to properly consider the plans, while Lib Dem minister Julian Hubbert told BBC's Today Programme that his party would ensure that it doesn't become Snooper's Charter II.

“It's only temporary legislation giving us time to have a proper parliament scrutiny of a long-term solution…it's not a Snooper's Charter and that will not happen under the Lib Dem's watch.”

Cameron said in a statement that events in Iraq and Syria proved that now “is not the time to be scaling back on our ability to keep people safe” and added that the decision wasn't taken lightly.

"The ability to access information about communications and intercept the communications of dangerous individuals is essential to fight the threat from criminals and terrorists targeting the UK,” said Cameron.

A special cabinet meeting is due to be held later today to agree the planned laws.

Reacting to the news, privacy lawyer Stewart Room told SCMagazineUK.com that the move is a positive step, not least for the telcos and ISPs that have been the ‘piggy in the middle' since Edward Snowden's first leaks broke on NSA and GCHQ surveillance.

He said that there have been question marks over the retention of data by telcos/ISPs since the Digital Rights Island case.

“The government needed to do something about data retention for the time being…it needed some legislative underpinning” said Room, who joins Pwc as partner in September. He will lead the legal part of the consultancy's cyber and data security practice.

“The telcos and ISPs have been pushing the government for clarity, naturally, as have the civil liberties groups. Some customers also want to know what their position is.”

“[ISPs and telcos] were in a very difficult position in terms of detecting crime and natural security interests, as well as their own customer interests. I suspect they are very encouraged that there's going to be clear legislation that they can point to and say ‘this is not about being ‘cosy' [with the government], this is about law.”

He said that the privacy rights board – in light of on-going legal battles – ‘makes sense', as does the review of RIPA.

Emma Carr, acting director of Big Brother Watch, took a different angle however, saying that governments shouldn't monitor people who are not under suspicion of any wrongdoing.

“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,” she said to SCMagazineUK via email.

"The fact that there has 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. MPs must be given adequate time to scrutinise the legislation being proposed in order to ensure that the mistakes of previous Bills, including attempts to introduce disproportionate and far reaching snooping powers, are not repeated.