Plans to allow GCHQ to watch over all of the UK’s communications data are formalised in the Queen’s Speech
As expected, the so-called ‘snooper’s charter’ was announced as a draft bill in the Queen’s Speech today, outlining government plans to watch over communications data.
Under the plans, black boxes would be installed at ISPs, where the government hopes communications data, covering what websites people are visiting and who they are interacting with, will be separated from the content of those communications. That information would then be passed on to GCHQ for its investigations. It covers the entire UK population, not just suspects of criminal investigations.
The Queen said, in her speech written by the government, that the changes would allow law enforcement agencies to get their hands on “vital” intelligence data, but under the “strict safeguards”. The changes will also be brought forward “subject to scrutiny of draft clauses”. The fact that it is a draft bill should mean no changes will be enforced in the next 12 months.
The draft communications bill has some provisos that the government hopes will appease some angry privacy advocates. These include a 12-month limit on how long data can be kept by GCHQ, as well as additional measures to prevent unauthorised access to the black boxes and increasing the prominence of tribunals to hear complaints.
Many have heaped opprobrium on the plans. “The Home Office needs to tread very, very carefully when it comes to proposing a level of online surveillance not seen in any other Western democracy,” Nick Pickles, director of the Big Brother Watch, told TechWeekEurope. “The proposals will rightly be closely scrutinised in Parliament and I hope the Conservatives fulfil their commitment to immediately give the plans to the Information Commissioner for pre-legislative scrutiny.
“Given that Lord Leveson is only beginning to explore how personal data was illegally obtained from private companies, I’m sure there are many MPs who will want to know how this proposal isn’t going to create a huge new risk of people snooping on what politicians, celebrities or members of the public do online.”
Initially, it had been expected the proposals would come in the form of a proper bill, not a draft version. However, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg had promised it would be a draft, following the furore around the plans. Pickles said it would be some time before any official legislation is brought in.
“A draft bill will not offer the same wide-ranging consultation as an ordinary white paper, but there is still a long way to go before this becomes law, if indeed it does,” he added. “Big Brother Watch will be working closely with privacy and civil society groups to ensure that proposals are scrutinised and if it is the illiberal, intrusive and indiscriminate measure we fear we will work tirelessly to ensure it does not pass into law.”
Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, added: “This bill could mark the end of the government’s reputation as a force for protecting our freedom and privacy. They should scrap it now.”
Many are unsure about whether separating communications data and content is even possible. Last month, Peter Sommer, a digital forensics expert and an expert witness in civil cases on computer-related issues, said he did not believe it was possible to separate such information. “You have to abandon the notion that you can separate comms data from content,” he added.
The inventor of the web, Tim Berners-Lee, has voiced his opposition to the proposals, as have numerous Liberal Democrat MPs and Tory MP David Davis.
Home secretary Theresa May has defended the plans, saying they would help track down terrorists and paedophiles. Authorities can already gain access to communications and content data if they acquire a warrant.
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