Communications Data Bill 'a snooping charter', say civil liberty groups

By staff writers
December 11, 2012

Civil liberties groups are expressing horror at the sweeping snooping powers the Home Secretary is set to gain under the draft Communications Data Bill.

Ministers will be able to demand "limitless categories of data" from internet communications if the draft Bill goes unamended.

The final report of the pre-legislative scrutiny committee on the new Bill is published today, along with the Intelligence and Security Committee Report. Both say the Communications Data Bill as it stands is not fit for purpose.

The government says it needs the powers outlined in the Bill to combat paedophilia, criminality and terrorism. Critics say that it is unnecessarily draconian. They include the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, who has promised to block it in its current form.

But campaigners remain concerned that the Liberal Democrats have a record of saying they oppose measures by their coalition partners and then voting for them under pressure.

The official Joint Committee of MPs and peers has strongly criticised the Communications Data Bill's scope. It says the Home Office has failed to make the case for the new laws, particularly by failing to show how the police use existing laws to monitor mobile phone data.

However, Home Secretary Theresa May says she will ignore the detailed concerns in today's reports, and the Sun newspaper has weighed in against opponents in a populist vein, accusing them of opposing what it describes as anti-paedophile measures.

Under the new Bill, ISPs would have to store for 12 months details of all online communication in the UK, such as the time, duration, originator and recipient of a communication and the location of the device from which it was made.

This will include, for the first time, details of messages sent on social media, webmail, voice calls over the internet and gaming, in addition to all emails and phone calls.

The police will need a warrant to be able to see the content of any messages, but no judge will be involved.

It is proposed that four bodies would have access to data. These are the police, the Serious and Organised Crime Agency, the intelligence agencies and HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC).

"These are blanket proposals which apply to every one of us in this country, large databases of information about all of our web habits, and that's simply too high a price to pay,” says Rachel Robinson of civil rights group Liberty.

Nick Pickles, director of privacy and civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch, said: “The Bill is as expected – an unprecedented and unwarranted attack on our privacy that will see the Government track where we make calls, who we email and what everyone does online. We are all suspects now.”

“It proposes the same data collection first mooted by Labour, with no court authorisation and a huge amount of powers that the Home Secretary can use without needing Parliamentary approval. The cursory concession on local councils is pure misdirection to try and disguise what are deeply unsettling proposals,” he declared.

“Across 117 pages the Home Office has set out the greatest attack on the private life seen for generations,” said Mr Pickles.

Right now, and without any new powers, the campaign points out, the police and security services in Britain can read emails, tap phones, plant hidden cameras and microphones in houses and intercept internet usage without the approval of a judge.

Since 2005, there have been more than 2.7 million requests by police and other public bodies for the communications data belonging to private individuals.

Of these, fewer than 10,000 requests have come from local authorities and none were authorised by a judge.

"Aside from the blatant spin of announcing unprecedented spying powers during the PM’s testimony to the Leveson enquiry, the Home Office is trying to hide an unprecedented level of surveillance of the entire population behind a miniscule concession of removing the ability to access Communications Data from local councils," says Big Brother Watch.

"This policy goes against the Coalition Agreement, against Conservative pre-election policy and is fundamentally an illiberal, intrusive boondoggle that will do little to improve national security and do everything to turn us into a nation of suspects."

* Data Communications Bill Briefing (BBW, *.PDF Adobe Acrobat file):


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