Privacy groups accuse ISPs of betraying customers’ trust by colluding with the Government
Communications providers are conspiring with the government to keep quiet over the effects of the Communications Data Bill, known to critics as Snooper’s Charter. according to a challenging letter sent by major privacy activist groups
Under the proposals, communications providers could be ordered to store all customers’ comms data for a year, and give police access to the records via a “filter”,which would operate like a search engine for a vast database. Comms data does not include the content of communications, but the when, where and who, which is too far for opponents of the bill.
Big Brother Watch, Privacy International and the Open Rights Group have united in a strongly-worded letter accusing major UK telcos, including BT, Virgin, O2, Sky and TalkTalk, of complying with a government attack on privacy, and urging them to withdraw their co-operation.
“That your businesses appear willing to be co-opted as an arm of the state to monitor every single one of your customers is a dangerous step, exacerbated by your silence,” read the letter, seen by TechWeekEurope.
“Sadly, your customers have not had the opportunity to comment on these proposals. Indeed, were it not for civil society groups and the media, they would have no idea such a policy was being considered.
“We believe this is a critical failure not only of government, but a betrayal of your customers’ interests. You appear to be engaged in a conspiracy of silence with the Home Office, the only concern being whether or not you will be able to recover your costs.
“We urge you to withdraw your participation in a process that in our view is deeply flawed, pursuing a pre-determined solution that puts competition, security and privacy at risk in an unprecedented way.”
BT, Virgin and Sky declined to comment on the matter. TalkTalk, however, said the matter should be taken up with government, but it disagreed with the privacy activists’ assertions.
“Frankly it is wholly incorrect to suggest that ISPs are in a conspiracy with the Home Office. We have engaged with government in the process so they can understand the practical implications of their proposals,” the TalkTalk spokesperson added.
“We have always emphasised the need for consultation, the importance of protecting customers’ privacy and that we would only ever act in response to legislation.”
An O2 spokesperson said: “Telefónica UK and other communication providers gave evidence to the Joint Committee and all this was published in full last year. The next steps are a matter for the government.”
ISPs were involved in scrutinising the bill. Virgin said during the committee’s review process it was “critical that any measures are proportionate and delivered on the basis of reasonable checks and balances to ensure that the legitimate privacy of users is protected”.
A spokesperson for the ISP Association said: “ISPA has not seen the letter in question, so cannot comment on the content. We expect the government to publish the bill imminently and when this happens, we will work with our members, parliamentarians and other stakeholders as part of the parliamentary scrutiny the bill will receive.”
It is believed the government will deliver the full bill in the Queen’s Speech on 8 May. Home secretary Theresa May (pictured) said last week the Home Office had been redrafting the bill following heavy criticism from the Joint Committee tasked with scrutinising the plans.
Outside of the privacy issues, cost was one problem raised by the committee. The government has already spent £400 million, despite the danger the bill will not even make it through Parliament.
In total, the government said £1.8 billion would be spent to enforce the Act, covering spending over 10 years, but the committee agreed that was likely to be too low an estimate.
The government has been repeatedly accused of keeping its ears closed to criticism. Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, told TechWeek last year his protests had been ignored by May despite a number of meetings between them. Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg said the law makers had to go back to the drawing board and completely rewrite the bill.
The Home Office is now facing legal action, as the Information Commissioner’s Office has ordered May and her team to publish advice ministers were sent on the cost and design of the bill.
An ICO spokesperson said the government now has 30 days to respond with the details the privacy watchdog has asked for.
The notice relates to an ongoing Freedom of Information complaint currently being handled by the ICO. “We will then examine the material before deciding whether the information requested by the complainant should be disclosed,” the spokesperson added.
Are you a pedant on privacy? Try our quiz!