During the debate about the Communications Data Bill, one of the points we repeatedly made was that while this bill was not about reading the contents of messages, but that the details of who you communicate with were still incredibly private information.
In the aftermath of the atrocity in Woolwich, The Prime Minister was absolutely right to warn against knee-jerk reactions. Sadly, various voices have called for the legislation to be revived, despite widespread criticism from two Parliamentary committees and two polls over finding the public still opposed it’s introduction.
If, as has been reported, these individuals were already of concern to the security services then it is of course right they were subjects of surveillance activity. It is not yet clear if these individuals could have been put under closer surveillance. That is an important question to be asked.
We have made clear that if people are under suspicion, we see no reason why additional data cannot be collected on individuals in real-time, where it is reasonable and proportionate to do so. This then becomes a question of resources for assessing the data available, rather than an argument to divert billions of pounds to store data on every single person. Where a sufficient level of concern is reached, existing legislation makes it possible to read the content of someone’s messages whereas the Communications Data Bill prohibited the viewing of content and did nothing to extend intercept powers. Sadly, this distinction was badly confused when Sir Malcolm Rifkind was interviewed by Justin Webb on this morning’s Today programme:
When asked about current powers, he said: “They have the powers to collect communications data at the moment with regard to telephone conversations, mobile phone communications…
JW Interruption: “but internet as well, surely if they ask for special permission?”
MR “Er, No, only in very limited circumstances. What the Communications Data Bill is proposing to do and the intelligence and Security committee, my committee, looked into this. The issue is essentially social messaging, various aspects of the internet that do not come under the current legislation. You know, the terrorists sometimes are very stupid, sometimes they’re quite smart and they know perfectly well what the limits are at the moment and there is evidence that increasingly extremists, terrorists, criminals, are using social messages and those parts of the internet that cannot be intercepted.
Point 1: Intercept does come under existing legislation (Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, and others) and we see no legal reason why it cannot be used on an internet connection (and would be very surprised if it was already not being used to do so.)
Point 2: The Communications Data Bill was not for intercepting internet messages. If there is a problem there, then the Bill would not have fixed it and we would argue is a much more pressing concern.
Point 3: The Communications Data Bill did nothing to allow the collection of communications data relating to individuals under suspicion to be done differently to every other person.
JW:“ People will be surprised though that MI5, you are saying, if they wanted to look at people, they have cause to look at someone, they are worried about them, that they couldn’t in ordinary circumstances get permission to monitor their internet use.
MR: “This is all controlled by legislation and when the legislation was passed, at that time, you did not have so many of the new forms of ways in which people communicate with each other either through the internet or through texting and social messaging and various things of that kind. Can I make one further point, it is very, very important, the issue here is about communications data, that’s not the content of people’s conversations but who called whom, where were they made those calls”
Point 4: Texting quite definitely existed in 2000 when RIPA was passed. At no point has anyone suggested details of who texted who is not available.
Point 5: In his previous answer, Sir Malcolm spoke of ‘intercept’ and now tries to say this isn’t about the content of messages.
We will be writing to the Intelligence and Security Committee to re-state these points. It is clearly of concern that one of Parliament’s key figures in the oversight of the intelligence services has failed to appreciate the detail underpinning the draft Communications Data Bill, or indeed the current legal framework.