Some matters in law and politics never seem to quite go away. In this instance, storing and government access to on-line information and private information once again is on the Parliamentary agenda.
Home Secretary Theresa May has long championed companies storing such private data, and government agencies being able to get private data from such companies. She has tried several times, in various forms, to pass the necessary legislation- and has been defeated each time
2012 saw the Draft Communications Data Bill. Under its provisions, communications companies would have had to store more varied types of personal data for 12 months- such as, for the first time, social media messages, web mail, voice calls via Internet, and gaming. However, a warrant would still have been needed for law enforcement to be able to get such messages from companies. Called the ‘Snooper’s Charter’ by its critics, its passage through Parliament was blocked- by Coalition partners the Liberal Democrats.
The next attempt for greater on-line surveillance was the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (2014). The Act was introduced after a rapid progress through Parliament in response to changes in the relevant EU directives and legislation. It was intended to be emergency legislation to keep the legal requirements for Internet and communications companies to maintain records of calls, texts and internet use (but not the content). Although a replacement to the relevant 2009 Regulations, the Act was wider in its powers- and crucially had safeguards in the legislation to prevent government misuse of those powers.
In 2015, following the shootings in France, and anti terror related arrests and activity in Belgium and Germany, Mrs. May is once again trying to get support for increased surveillance powers for the security services, citing national security. The proposed Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill would add to existing powers that police and security agencies already have under prior legislation. One crucial such addition is that companies would store information on IP addresses, so that law enforcement could link IP addresses to computers and mobile devices, which would help to track down suspects.
In a rare show of Parliamentary consensus, both sides of both Chambers agree that more needs to be done in this regard. It is only the method that there is discord on. The proposals in the draft Bill are currently welcomed by many. Labour has expressed support for the Bill- as long as there is appropriate oversight. The Liberal Democrats have also welcomed the Bill- but cautiously. It is their stated concern that such legislation might end up similar to the former Snooper’s Charter which they greatly opposed.
The Liberal Democrats also expressed their concern that the Coalition was ‘dragging its feet’ in regards to on-line national security issues. Such a concern was echoed in the House of Lords by former MI5 Director General Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller; “[the government’s] slow and considered [approach to this matter is merely] heightening the risk”.
Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, Keith Vaz stated that internet service providers should do more; “we can’t expect the government to sit there and be monitoring this all the time… The best people to do this are the providers themselves.” Support from such companies has been not as enthusiastic, though. Whilst approving the idea in theory, some in the industry point to the practicalities and expense to companies of actually storing such data.
In this matter, civil liberties campaigners and the police are surprisingly also in agreement. According to campaign group Liberty, the current proposals are indeed a step forward- so long as the enhanced surveillance and greater powers are targeted against specific groups or individuals, with the requisite warrants and oversight. Liberty and other such campaign groups have long opposed blanket government surveillance- which the draft Bill does not seem to entail. In agreement and support is Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe. However, whilst tacitly supporting the Bill, he added that “my job is to help keep people safe. To get that balance between security and privacy is Parliament’s job.”
From the internet companies to the police, from the House of Lords to the House of Commons, in the matter of increased on line surveillance and data storage powers, there is a remarkable degree of consensus from all parties. No one doubts the need for increased powers for law enforcement and the security services (and not just as regards anti terrorism; cyber bullying, organised crime and similar are also considered under the legislation) as regards the Internet. No one disagrees the need to monitor and to police the Internet more effectively, and to utilise cyberspace as another method of affecting law and order.
The massive disagreement, however, is in the method, and the details, and in how the Bill would be put into practice. The Lib Dems strongly oppose on principle anything resembling a Snooper’s Charter (and have several Conservative and Labour backbenchers in support). The companies themselves want a method of storing the data that is efficient and cost effective, and one that will actually be of help to law enforcement.
Amidst such consensus (a rare thing in such proceedings), it is the details and the method that need to be agreed upon. That might actually prove to be more of an issue than the actual debate on increased on-line surveillance- and thus once again sink Mrs. May’s attempts in this regard.
The Bill is still being considered before Parliament. It is likely, though, that the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill will indeed eventually receive Royal Assent. The question, however, is in what exact form. In what form will the necessary policing of the Internet take? What exact powers will the police have? What (and indeed how) data will the internet companies be required to store? The most crucial question of all, though, remains exactly what oversight and regulation will there be?