UK: Plans for Greater Email and Web Monitoring Powers Spark Privacy Fears
Monday, April 2, 2012
By Hélène Mulholland and Robert Booth
David Davis, the former Conservative shadow home secretary, has warned that government plans to allow police and security services to extend their monitoring of the public's email and social media communications are unnecessary and will generate huge public resentment.
Davis spoke out after proposals emerged for a system to allow security officials to scrutinise who is talking to whom, and exactly when the conversations are taking place, but not the content of the message.
The coalition plans are likely to feature in the Queen's speech on 9 May and rely on internet service providers (ISPs) gathering the information and allowing government intelligence operatives to scrutinise it.
Labour tried to introduce a similar system using a central database tracking all phone, text, email and internet use but that was dropped in 2009. It followed concerns raised by ISPs and mobile phone operators over the project's feasibility, and anxieties over who would foot the bill.
Civil liberties campaigners have strongly criticised the revival of the plan because of the risk it could breach the privacy of individuals. One liberal commentator warned that many Lib Dems would be infuriated by the proposals.
Davis, the Conservative MP for Haltemprice and Howden, who famously quit his seat to trigger a byelection over the Labour government's 42-day terror detention plan in 2008, said legislation was unnecessary. Current surveillance arrangements under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and the unwarranted checks on "who calls who" were already "too loose".
"I'm afraid what this does is makes it 60m times worse," Davis told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
The government had vowed to "end the storage of internet and email records without good reason" - a commitment enshrined in the coalition agreement in a section on civil liberties that says the British state "has become too authoritarian".
Davis said: "What is proposed is completely unfettered access to every single communication you make. This argument it doesn't cover content - it doesn't cover content for telephone calls, but your web address is content. If you access a [website], that is content.
"I'm afraid it is a very, very big widening of powers, which I'm afraid will be very much resented by many, many citizens who do not like the idea."
A similar attempt in Germany two years ago led to 35,000 complaints to the supreme court, which subsequently struck it down, he said, warning: "I suspect the same thing will happen here."
He added: "It's going to cause enormous resentment. Already thousands of people on the web are objecting to it. It was dropped by the last government ... if it was so important, they should have kept going last time."
Anthony Glees, director of the Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies at the University of Buckingham, pointed to the recent killings in Toulouse, France as grounds upon which to support the measures, saying it needed to be done "because it can be done".
He told Today the measures were important in the year of the Olympic Games and the Queen's diamond jubilee. Terrorists could be monitored and attacks dealt with, he said, accusing critics such as Davis of getting a "bit obsessed" with privacy, which he said "militates in favour of the people who want to take the liberties of the rest of us".
Davis pointed out that if the legislative plans were going to be in the Queen's speech next month, they could only be implemented in late 2013 at the earliest.
The Home Office confirmed over the weekend that the plans would be brought forward "as soon as parliamentary time allows".
Its spokesman said: "It is vital that police and security services are able to obtain communications data in certain circumstances to investigate serious crime and terrorism and to protect the public.
"We need to take action to maintain the continued availability of communications data as technology changes.
Communications data includes time, duration and dialling numbers of a phone call, or an email address. It does not include the content of any phone call or email and it is not the intention of government to make changes to the existing legal basis for the interception of communications."
The editor of the magazine the Liberal, Benjamin Ramm, said Liberal Democrats would be "furious" over the plans, "especially as they campaigned tirelessly against New Labour's authoritarianism".
"It is difficult to believe, even after so many broken election pledges, that the party would violate one of its fundamental philosophical tenets. What is the purpose of a Liberal party if it's not going to be liberal?" said Ramm, whose publication is not affiliated to the Lib Dem party.
Lord Carlile, a Lib Dem peer and a former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation for the government, said he expected parliament to demand strict safeguards on any new powers.
"There is nothing new about this," he told Today. "The previous government intended to take similar steps and they were heavily criticised by the coalition parties.
"But having come into government, the coalition parties have realised this kind of material has potential for saving lives, preventing serious crime and helping people to avoid becoming victims of serious crime.
"We are talking about the updating of existing practices."
Lord Carlile said he would expect parliament to demand the setting up of an independent board to monitor activity.
Isabella Sankey, director of policy at the campaign group Liberty, said: "Whoever is in government, the grand snooping ambitions of security agencies don't change.
"The coalition agreement explicitly promised to 'end unnecessary data retention' and restore our civil liberties. At the very least we need less secret briefing and more public consultation if this promise is to be abandoned."