Queen points to Communications Data Bill

“My Government intends to bring forward measures to maintain the ability of the law enforcement and intelligence agencies to access vital communications data under strict safeguards to protect the public, subject to scrutiny of draft clauses.”

So there we have it – the Communication Capabilities Development Programme will have it’s day in Parliament. We don’t know what the draft clauses will be or when we will see them, but the Government remains intent on pursuing legislation in the coming session of Parliament.

If someone is suspected of plotting an attack the powers already exist to tap their phone, read their email and follow them on the street. Instead of scaremongering the Home Office should come forward and engage with the debate about how we improve public safety, rather than pursue a policy that will indiscriminately spy on everyone online while the real threats are driven underground and escape surveillance.

The Home Office have been very good at saying what the problem is, but seem intent on keeping the technical details of what they are proposing secret. Is it any wonder that the public are scared by a proposal for online surveillance not seen in any other Western democracy.

They also seem keen to avoid talking about the Black Boxes for real time monitoring capability that we still believe to be part of the plans.

Whether it is a draft Bill or not, if the Home Office needs to tread very, very carefully when it comes to proposing a level of online surveillance not seen in any other Western democracy. The proposals will rightly be closely scrutinised in Parliament and I hope the Conservatives fulfil their commitment to immediately give the plans to the Information Commissioner for pre-legislative scrutiny.

It’s far from clear this is technically possible, with encrypted messages, virtual private networks and onion browsers increasingly part of ordinary people’s online habits. Equally, the ‘black box’ measures risk introducing new security vulnerabilities into the UK’s critical national infrastructure. There’s also the pressing question of what the Bill will propose that isn’t already possible under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.

And given that Lord Leveson is only beginning to explore how personal data was illegally obtained from private companies, I’m sure there are many MPs who will want to know how proposal isn’t going to create a huge new risk of people snooping on what politicians, celebrities or members of the public do online.

Before the election the Conservative policy on this was “immediately submitting the Home Office’s plans for the retention of – and access to – communications data to the Information Commissioner for pre-legislative scrutiny.” We don’t know if this has happened.

A draft bill will not offer the same wide-ranging consultation as an ordinary white paper, but there is still a long way to go before this becomes law, if indeed it does. Big Brother Watch will be working closely with privacy and civil society groups to ensure that proposals are scrutinised and if it is the illiberal, intrusive and indiscriminate measure we fear we will work tirelessly to ensure it does not pass into law.

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