The UK government is pushing to pass an emergency law that would allow for storing and tracking the public’s phone calls, text messages, and internet use.
The bill, which is set for inter-party reforms later this week and is expected to pass, was created as a response to alleged domestic terrorism threats — although the validity of these threats and the likeliness of an attack are uncertain. Recruitment propaganda and videos of alleged war crimes by British citizens in Syria that surfaced on social media this year have helped fuel speculation and reports of radicalization on the home front. However, former MI6 chief Richard Dearlove said Tuesday that recent fears of extremism in the West have been overblown by governments and media, with most terrorist activity having been refocused into the Middle East.
The bill closely resembles a previous plan, proposed in 2012 by Home Secretary Theresa May, that would have required telecommunications companies to retain detailed information about their customers’ phone calls and internet use for up to 12 months. The proposal, called the Communications Data Bill, was dropped in 2013 after its tactics were deemed invasive and disproportionate by opposing members, including Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.
Before being vetoed, the plan became known as the “Snooper’s Charter.”
Ministers from the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats have promised not to let the new bill become an updated version of the old one. A Liberal source told the Guardian, “There is no question of a snooper’s charter, watered down or otherwise, being introduced by this government.”
“The government does have to respond to the European court of justice ruling, which we are currently examining, and will respond in due course. But that is about the retention of existing powers rather than their extension,” the source said.
Minister for Security James Brokenshire recently stated that legalization of spying is an essential step for the government to take, promising in October 2013 that the Communications Data Bill would be reintroduced “at the earliest possible opportunity.”
Internet spying has a poor track record in the UK. Yet another surveillance law, established in 2006, which instructed telecom companies to record customer data for up to two years, was recently struck down by the European Court of Justice for interfering with the “fundamental rights to respect for private life and to the protection of personal data.”
The problems with the 2006 directive were not limited to it being an invasion of privacy. The court also said in its ruling that law enforcement had to have a reason to target an individual for surveillance.
However, other laws already exist that allow the government to spy on its citizens through various loopholes. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act of 2000 says that messages passed between users on a service based outside of the UK, such as Facebook, are considered “external communication” and subject to unregulated surveillance — even if the users themselves are British citizens who would otherwise be protected from data interception.
Earlier this year, director general of the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism Charles Farr responded to civil liberties groups, internet privacy watchdogs, and other critics by calling the law a “critical resource for the Government in seeking to take preventative action to counter threats, and save lives.”
As Liat Clark at Wired UK points out, the bill could lead to “legal justification… for the mass surveillance of UK citizens.”
A Home Office spokesperson told the Guardian that the “retention of communications data is absolutely fundamental to ensure law enforcement have the powers they need to investigate crime, protect the public and ensure national security.”