In a move the Home Office are calling key to tackling crime and terrorism, internet firms will be required to give one of three UK intelligence agencies, GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) access to user’s real time communications. This means, they will be able to access your communications as they are happening. When the last Labour government attempted something similar, they failed, after mass opposition including from the Conservatives.
Since 2009, under an EU directive, Internet service providers have had to keep records of user’s internet searches, phone calls and emails for 12 months. The content of calls is not recorded but the sender, recipient, communication time and place is.
Law and enforcement and intelligence agencies appear to be the driving forces behind the proposed changes. They want ensure their ability to continue to gather data vital for investigation. However is this an update or broadening of powers in terms of introducing real-time monitoring? A vast range of agencies have access to this information and 552,550 communications data requests were made in 2010 alone. That begs the question, who exactly will have access to our communications data?
Former shadow home secretary and Conservative backbencher, David Davis, says it’s a ‘very big widening of powers’ which would result in ‘a lot of resentment’ as it becomes easier for the government ‘to eavesdrop on vast numbers of people’. This ‘is not focusing on terrorists or criminals it’s absolutely everybody’s emails, phone calls, web access’.
The same coalition that opposed such attempts by Labour have stated ‘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’. Their six-month consultation on the proposal drew support from a third of respondents, while 50 per cent said it lacked necessary safeguards to prevent the abuse of data.
Support of the proposal has come from Professor Anthony Glees, director of the Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies at the University of Buckingham. He has stated there are ‘a lot of dangerous people out there’ and police need to be able to ‘keep up with the massive flow of information out there on Facebook and the internet’.
The new legislation may be announced in the Queen’s speech next month. Lord Carlile, former independent reviewer of terrorism legislastion, said in the face of opposition any new law would still have to potentially make it through Parliament.
To access the content of messages requires a warrant signed by the Home Secretary but is this any kind of compensation for ‘an unprecedented step that will see Britain adopt the same kind of surveillance seen in China and Iran’? Nick Pickles, director of campaign group Big Brother Watch continued, ‘this is an absolute attack on privacy online and it is far from clear this will actually improve public safety, while adding significant costs to internet businesses’.