Two examples why we don’t need the draft Communications Data Bill

This morning, The Sun carries an article making several claims about the draft Communications Data Bill that bear a striking resemblance to

“Mrs May says the new law would be a massive help in preventing another 7/7-style atrocity on Britain’s streets.”

However, the 7/7 inquest stated: “Post 7/7 enquiries revealed that between 22nd February and 15th June 2005 there were forty one telephone contacts between mobile phones attributed to Tanweer, Khan, and Lindsay and hydroponics outlets. It is unlikely these could have been detected by surveillance given the large number of untraceable “operational” phones used by the bombers and only attributed to them once their identities and details were known.”

“and could stop savage events like the gunning down of brave women police officers Nicola Hughes and Fiona Bone in September”

How would data prevent such a cold-blooded act by someone wanted for another crime that had taken place a month earlier? The officers were responding to a routine report of a house burglary – are we now saying before responding to routine calls, police officers will be expected to check the website browsing, social media messages and emails of every individual in the vicinity?

“Anybody who is against this bill is putting politics before people’s lives.”

When Parliament rejected 90 day detention, Tony Blair said “People will believe parliament was deeply irresponsible” while Hazel Blears (then a Home Office minister) said “It is right that people question and probe these issues but the three-month period is what the police and security service say is necessary.”

The Coalition was rightly applauded for not accepting this rhetoric and highlighting there was no evidence to support the claims being made. The rhetoric of today’s article is groundhog day for anyone familiar with the New Labour playbook of how to get terrorism legislation passed.

Mrs May said: “Criminals, terrorists and paedophiles will want MPs to vote against this bill. Victims of crime, police and the public will want them to vote for it. It’s a question of whose side you’re on.”

This is very similar to Tony Blair’s words on 90 day detention: “the police and those charged with fighting terrorism said the 90-day power was needed to make the country safe….. We believe this is right for our country. We believe it is necessary to protect our country from terrorism and I’m only sorry you don’t agree.”

The approach of presenting the bill as aimed at only terrorists, paedophiles and serious criminals is something the Joint Committee raised with the Home Secretary, noting the purposes of the Bill go much, much wider than these offences.Sir Paul Kennedy, the Interception of Communications Commissioner,  told MPs that the powers could be justified when investigating incidents such as fly tipping.

We have highlighted numerous ways that public safety could be improved without requiring blanket data retention on every one of our emails, social media messages and website visits.

It’s also worth noting that the two examples cited in the article could be addressed by alternative routes.

Example 1: “A MAJOR criminal investigation was launched into a website used as a secret portal for viewing more than 2,000 indecent images of children. Both were jailed. But others escaped because internet access companies had no record of who had used the IP addresses.”

Being involved in the production or distribution of child pornography is illegal. It is a serious crime. In this case, it would be proportionate to go to internet service providers and ask for the IP address of any computer accessing the website, and for data to be retained about that use. Those people could be identified and prosecuted without needing to record every website visit of every person.

Example 2: An online counsellor called police to tip them off that an emotional man was feared to be on the verge of suicide. Cops found out where he lived by tracing the IP address and raced round to his home. It was only by chance that the internet service provider had a record of the man’s address and police were able to help him.

What happened to terrorism, paedophiles and serious criminals? There is a wholly separate argument about whether the state should try and intervene in preventing suicides in such a way, but in this case it is about the ability to track in real-time the identity of a single individual when some identifying information – in this case an IP address – is already known. The powers to track an individual already exist – and in this case none of the data used was details of emails, website visits or social media messages, which the bill proposes to log for everyone for one year.