UK to rush through "emergency" phone and internet data retention law

Filed Under: Data loss, Featured, Law & order, Privacy

Image of UK Parliament, courtesy of ShutterstockThe UK is rushing through Parliament what it calls an emergency law that will ensure it retains access to people's phone and internet records, it said on Thursday.

The BBC calls the rush job a "highly unusual move", with the legislation set to take up a mere seven days, instead of the typical months-long consideration to which a bill would normally be subjected.

The Liberal Democrats (the smaller of the two political parties in the UK's coalition government) had already successfully blocked plans for the earlier, similar, much-reviled Communications Data Bill - commonly known as the Snooper's Charter.

The rush job for this new bill comes in response to the European Court of Justice's (ECJ) having in April struck down an EU directive - the Data Retention Directive - that required telecoms to store the communications data of EU citizens for a minimum of six months and a maximum of two years.

That directive was introduced in 2006, after the London and Madrid bombings, to help fight organised crime and terrorism, but the ECJ ruled that it violated human rights.

The idea of the directive going away has been grating on the UK powers - particularly given that privacy advocates such as the Open Rights Group have recently been pushing service providers to start destroying data.

Prime Minster David Cameron, who's reportedly secured the backings of all three major parties for the "emergency" Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill, says that if the collected data is deleted or no longer collected, "criminals and terrorists" are going to be tougher to go after.

Cameron says the emergency law will also "clarify" police and security services' powers to bug suspects' phones when they've got a warrant issued by the home secretary.

Some companies are already turning down requests to hand over data, he told the BBC:

Some companies are already saying they can no longer work with us unless UK law is clarified immediately.

Maybe Cameron has all three parties backing him on this new iteration of the snooper's charter, but he's still outraged some MPs, who said on Thursday morning that they hadn't even seen the bill yet.

Labour MP Tom Watson, for one, said on Twitter that the new law will be "railroaded" through parliament next week:


Statement on Comms Data and Interception confirmed for this morning. MPs have not seen the BIll that will be railroaded through next week.

Meanwhile, privacy advocates are calling this so-called emergency a theatrical stunt.

Jim Killock, from the Open Rights Group, told the BBC that it's neither terrorists nor paedophiles that have lit a fire under the government; rather, it's the fact that groups like his are actually expecting telecoms to make good on the EJC's ruling:

The government knows that since the ECJ ruling, there is no legal basis for making internet service providers retain our data, so it is using the threat of terrorism as an excuse for getting this law passed.

The government has had since April to address the ECJ ruling but it is only now that organisations such as ORG are threatening legal action that this has become an 'emergency'.

The emergency bill addresses collection of metadata, which can potentially include the time, duration, location, originator and recipient of phone or internet messages.

It does not, Cameron stressed, include legal obligations for telecoms to preserve content.

The bill does, however, also cover "legal intercept" rules, for when authorities are empowered to listen in on conversations.

In those circumstances, snooping authorities need a warrant, signed by either the foreign secretary, the home secretary, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, the defence secretary or the cabinet secretary for justice for Scotland.

The emergency law includes a sunset provision: it will be ended in 2016, at which time government will have to look at it again.

Cameron stressed that the emergency bill isn't granting powers that weren't already there:

I want to be very clear that we are not introducing new powers or capabilities - that is not for this parliament. This is about restoring two vital measures ensuring that our law enforcement and intelligence agencies maintain the right tools to keep us all safe.

Nick Clegg, leader of the junior coalition Liberal Democrats party, said that the emergency bill is not just another snooper's charter.

The differences between old and new legislation: the number of bodies able to obtain data from telecoms will be restricted, with some losing their access rights altogether and councils having to go through a single central authority, according to the Huffington Post.

The law doesn't deal with communications interception and monitoring done by the UK's intelligence agency, GCHQ.

The bill also includes measures meant to increase transparency and oversight. Beyond the sunset clause and the increased government scrutiny it entails, these measures also include:

  • The creation of a new Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board to scrutinise the impact of the law on privacy and civil liberties.
  • Annual government transparency reports on how these powers are used, similar to those put out by Facebook, Google, Yahoo and other companies.
  • The appointment of a senior former diplomat to lead discussions with the US government and internet firms to establish a new international agreement for sharing data between legal jurisdictions.
  • A restriction on the number of public bodies, including Royal Mail, able to ask for communications data under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA).

In spite of the government's reassurances about most people being safe from having the actual content of their communications spied on, metadata of course provides ample details about even innocent people.

The Washington Post's recent analysis of the US National Security Agency (NSA)'s surveillance shows that clearly: the paper found that 9 of 10 spied-on account holders weren't intended targets of surveillance but were still swept up in the net cast to catch somebody else.

As critics pointed out about the earlier snooper's charter, the system could be abused by law enforcement agencies that could conduct fishing expeditions rather than targeted surveillance against specific individuals.

In fact, Sir Paul Kennedy, the Interception of Communications Commissioner, told MPs at the time the bill was drafted that the law would justify investigating criminal infractions as mild as fly tipping - i.e., illegal dumping - and that setting a “crime threshold” would be difficult.

Top political figures in the UK tried to revive the snooper's charter about a year ago, with spectacularly bad timing: smack in the middle of the earliest Snowden revelations about US surveillance.

Now, they've scaled back in an attempt, apparently, just to hang on to the snooping powers that the EJC decided were a violation of human rights.

Will the new bill present a more palatable approach to privacy? Will the wealth of data that the bill retains the right to amass still present an opportunity for the government to build profiles about individuals' browsing or calling habits?

Will the amassed data still wind up in databases as a powerful lure for cybercrooks who might want to steal it so as to abuse private information or even to blackmail individuals - as in, we know when and how often you called so-and-so. What will you pay for that info not to get out?

Those were the objections to the snooper's charter and the emergency bill is being given precious little time for those same concerns to be discussed.

Image of UK Parliament courtesy of Shutterstock.

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9 Responses to UK to rush through "emergency" phone and internet data retention law

  1. RichardD · 456 days ago

    Salami-slicing at it's finest. They couldn't pass the snoopers' charter in one hit, so they force through a scaled-back version as an "emergency" law, wait a few months, and then start increasing the snooping until they get what they originally wanted.

    Oh, and brace yourself for the comments from the "nothing to hide, nothing to fear" crowd. As Cardinal Richelieu allegedly wrote, "If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him."

  2. Sammie · 456 days ago

    With more and more idiots rushing off to Syria and Iraq dreaming of a fake nation, my priorities are life first and privacy second. If I worry too much about privacy, I may not have a life to live and DPA as far as I understand apply only to those who are still breathing. Any law which would prevent innocents from getting killed and insane extremists from profiting and spreading terror is always welcome.

    • Joe Grosman · 455 days ago

      I don't want to live in a world where I am watched and monitored 24-7-365, that is a nanny state and just like Orwell's 1984.

    • Laurence Marks · 455 days ago

      Ahh Sammie, Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of America said "Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety”

  3. Andrew · 456 days ago

    this Government is constantly interfering with peoples private lives. I suspect this Government is breaking Crown privacy laws. when will they realise that terrorists will be using other mediums for communication.

  4. OK my quick reading suggest the UK government will write to a company (Twitter, your ISP, a phone company, a TV company) and say "You must by UK law, keep all the data from everyone in the world for 12 months, and give it to us."

    This would make apps like Snapchat illegal in the UK (if they really do delete users data straight away).

    • Sam · 456 days ago

      I think you have misread it - only the metadata has to be retained; none of the content be it voice, email message, photograph, etc. will be retained.

  5. Sam · 456 days ago

    Analysis of communications metadata as well as the interception of the communications of identified miscreants is undoubtedly an essential tool if we are to reduce the threat posed by those whose declared aim is to seriously damage or destroy western countries.

    Would those who object please let us know how they feel after those Jihadists who recently acquired 40kg of Uranium plus an unknown quantity of Sarin and other gasses have used them to kill, maim or poison in one of our great cities. This miniscule potential loss of privacy must surely be a price worth paying.

    • Ivor Massey-Vaas · 452 days ago

      You're missing the point, and have been successfully 'hoodwinked' by the government. Do some research.

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.