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Nick Clegg Demands Snooper’s Charter Rethink

Communications Data Bill should be completely rethought, Nick Clegg and Justice Committee argue

On by Thomas Brewster 0

The Coalition is heading for a bust up over proposed legislation, as Nick Clegg today said the government should “go back to the drawing board” on the draft Communications Data Bill, known by its critics as Snooper’s Charter.

The draft proposed forcing communications providers to hold on to comms data – information on who has contacted who, from where and on what device – for 12 months. It would also make it simpler for police to get hold of that data.

Home secretary Theresa May has argued the bill should be drafted into law, as  Chapter II of  Part I of RIPA (the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000), as police need more power to access data to track paedophiles and terrorists.

But today a report from a committee of MPs and Lords appointed to carry out pre-legislative scrutiny of the bill said it went too far and would lead to serious breaches of privacy. Deputy prime minister Clegg backed the report and will now ask May and her cohorts to rethink the bill, which has been one of the most controversial pieces of proposed legislation from the current government since it came into power in 2010.

Snooper’s Charter ‘costly and invasive’

“We cannot proceed with this bill and we have to go back to the drawing board,” Nick Clegg said. “The Committee did not, however, suggest that nothing needs to be done. They were very clear that there is a problem that must be addressed to give law enforcement agencies the powers they need to fight crime. I agree.

“But that must be done in a proportionate way that gets the balance between security and liberty right.”

The core concern over the Communications Data Bill is privacy. “We believe that the draft Bill pays insufficient attention to the duty to respect the right to privacy, and goes much further than it need or should for the purpose of providing necessary and justifiable official access to communications data,” the Committee, made up of six Lords and six MPs, said.

The Committee took particular umbrage with clause 1 on the bill. It lets the secretary of state demand communications providers to store “necessary” data. The Committee believes such powers to be far too broad.

“Clause 1 therefore should be redrafted with a much narrower scope, so that the secretary of state may make orders subject to Parliamentary approval enabling her to issue notices only to address specific data gaps as need arises,” the report read.

There is some concern that communications data will be difficult to separate from the content of emails or other forms of Internet communication, such as Facebook messages or Skype chats.

Cost codswallop

Cost has been another major issue. The Committee said it believed the Home Office had not been accurate in its cost reports. It said the £1.8 billion figure, covering spending over 10 years, was likely to be too low, whilst the £5 to £6.2 billion benefit to the economy was “fanciful and misleading”.

“This figure must be highly suspect, because it was calculated with little or no input from the CSPs [communication service providers],” the report read. Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft said it would be difficult to estimate the cost in the first place.

“Given successive governments’ poor records of bringing IT projects in on budget, and the general lack of detail about how the powers under the Bill will be used, there is a reasonable fear that this legislation will cost considerably more than the current estimates,” the Committee said.

“Whatever the benefits of the bill, they are unlikely to be financial.”

Furthermore, the government had not properly considered the extra cost of storing and securing the extra data. “We consider that the Home Office’s cost estimates may underestimate the cost of security and destruction.”

The Committee also lambasted the Home Office for not working more closely with communications providers, especially overseas ones, who would also be heavily impacted by the laws. Facebook said it had “no dialogue with the Home Office before the Bill was published”.

The report said communications firms are “rightly very nervous about these provisions”. The provision of a “request filter”, which would be the central point where data from different providers would be accessed, would also be a massive technical challenge, MPs argued.

Instead of adding a new provision, the report calls for the whole of RIPA to be redrafted as its language was “out of date and should not be used as the basis of new legislation”.

Additionally, to ensure authorities are not using RIPA powers to excess, the office of Interception of Communications Commissioner (IoCC) should be given additional powers to carry out regular checks “of the large users of communications data”.

May has insisted she will continue to fight for the bill to become an Act, and is hoping to talk with Labour about getting it into statute before the next election.

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales said he had been ignored by May when he had a meeting on Snooper’s Charter in November.

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Thomas Brewster

Author: Thomas Brewster

Security Correspondent, TechWeekEurope
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