The Snoopers Charter

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By Stephen Lovell

In an unexpected move announced in the Queen’s Speech earlier this week, the government is to introduce an investigatory powers bill far more wide-ranging than expected. The legislation will include not only the expected snooper’s charter, enabling the tracking of everyone’s web and social media use, but also moves to strengthen the security services’ warranted powers for the bulk interception of the content of communications.

The Snoopers’ Charter would require details of our every email, website visit and social media log to be recorded. Those in favour of the legislation have argued that it isn’t intrusive as the content of messages won’t be looked at, just the communications data (sometimes referred to as metadata).

The problem with that argument is that from communications data it is possible to deduce a significant degree of someone’s personality, habits and condition – whether that be visiting a place of worship (location data every Sunday at 10am, for example) or accessing legal advice (divorce law firm) or support (Samaritans via e-mail, or and Alcoholics Anonymous website).

One of the arguments made for the Snoopers’ Charter is that there is currently a capability gap; the erosion of the ability of public authorities to access communications data (the who, what, where of a message but not the content).

However, the transparency reports of communications service providers highlights that Britain already receives a great deal of communications data directly from those companies.

The major issue that the intelligence services are facing at present is not that they can’t access data, but that they can’t properly utilise it, because of manpower shortages and a lack of skills.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the proposed legislation, the move has gone in the face of many technology leaders views and indeed of that of international bodies like the United Nations. It has just declared that encryption and anonymity must be protected.

A UN report whether rights to privacy and freedom of expression extend to protect online communications and, if so, how far governments are allowed to go to impose restrictions on those communications. More specifically, the UN is looking at restrictions on encryption and anonymity, and whether legislation against either contravenes human rights laws.

Meanwhile, Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, has urged Britons to fight the government’s plans to extend the country’s surveillance powers, and act as a worldwide leader for promoting good governance on the web.

Berners-Lee said Britain had “lost the moral leadership” on privacy and surveillance, following the revelations of the former National Security Agency contractor, Edward Snowden.

In summary, the Communications Data Bill has been awaiting introduction in various forms ever since 2008. Nonetheless the Snoopers’ Charter didn’t make it onto the statute books then. As it is known to have opponents on the Tory backbenches also, the government might still find it has a fight on its hands to get it introduced now.

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