Opinion: Snoopers Charter about to resurface

Negotiations are currently taking place deep within the coalition that could change our relationship with the internet forever.  The second draft of the Data Communications Bill, or Snoopers Charter is currently being negotiated and if it’s anything like the 1st draft that was rejected in December, it could effectively spell the end of privacy as we know it on the internet.

The Data Communications Data Bill will force internet service providers and other internet businesses to collect and store all of your electronic communications for at least 12 months.  This will include all your emails, websites you’ve visited, Skype calls, social media, telephone calls etc.  In effect, the government will be able to see what websites you are visiting, who you are talking to and what you are talking to them about.

The plans are to take all of this data, and make it easily searchable.  Theresa May states that this will help to catch cyber criminals, terrorists and paedophiles.  In reality it will cost billions to implement, the detection technology is easy to evade,  and there are no solid figures on how many criminals it will catch – in fact the Joint Committee of MPs charged to evaluate the bill called the supposed financial benefits “fanciful and misleading”.

Cyber criminals are already using easily available anonymity technologies such as Tor that would bypass the Snoopers Charter completely.  Existing powers under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) already allow the monitoring of internet connections, and the cyber criminals know this and how to evade detection – the Snoopers Charter would not catch these people.

We also know from Leveson that public institutions can be porous, data leaks out.  The Snoopers Charter in its current form enables pretty much any public body to gain access to this mega database, it could theoretically allow something like the Food Standards Authority to see what websites you are visiting.  Furthermore, the safeguards in the legislation are scant and unclear.  There will be no judicial oversight.

In fact, how this data will be used is not clear at all.  Problems already exist under RIPA with over 50 requests a week for citizens telecoms data that has nothing to do with law enforcement or the secret services, with hundreds of civil servants disciplined over misuse of restricted data every year.  There is nothing in the Snoopers Charter to prevent this; there will simply be more data of a more personal nature available for potential misuse.

And even if you discount the privacy and dubious law enforcement benefits, you must then look at the economic costs.  The UK is currently one of the best places to start an internet business and this sector provides one of the few areas of consistent growth in our economy.  If a silicon roundabout start up has to make all of its customers’ data available to the government in a standardised format, as the act states, the cost could severely limit the fledgling business.  It could even force it to move abroad. Can you really imagine some foreign companies wanting to invest in the UK if they have to work with the knowledge that the UK government can see all of their UK based communications?

As a Liberal Democrat and as an IT professional, this legislation runs against everything I know and believe in.  If we allow this legislation to pass it will damage our privacy, economy and government deficit; the paedophiles,  terrorists and criminals will just wise up and move on.

* Paul Thompson is a London based internet television & film specialist, having worked for the several large media multinationals. He has also contributed to several areas of Liberal Democrat IT policy, in particular the Digital Economy Act and digital intellectual property issues, and has served as the digital intellectual property lead for their IT & Intellectual Property Policy Working Group.

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  • Melanie Harvey 23rd Apr '13 - 5:15pm

    If no one has right of entry to my home and affairs without, court order/police warrant and or my personal consent, they should not have access to what I do within it on the internet likewise….

  • Well , get into bed with authoritarian Tories and eventually you have to fcuk.

  • It’ll just lead to a huge upsurge in the use of VPNs and encryption. That’ll result in a counter move of more legislation and huge cost upon cost , then counter tech move back … to -and- fro…State vs people … costing a fortune . Whilst in all likelihood the real bad guys will be avoiding the internet like the plague , I mean , don’t remember lack the web stopping the IRA’s actions . Royal Mail can’t even be randomly read like these proposals effectively allow for ,

    The truth is, technology is changing all the time , more legislation to follow is a certainty , possibly draconian too , if in the future encryption is banned for Brits , Some countries insist and have guaranteed privacy by law , those countries won’t necessarily play ball and Wiki’s founder has already said he’ll encrypt all connections to the UK if this is past. It also opens up security issues at ISP level.

    So a bad idea, compounded by ‘pen and paper’ era ministers who admit they know nothing about computing . The Lib Dems haven’t much credibility left , stuck seemingly permanently in single digits . Supporting these proposals, proposals more suited to China or Iran, would be the final nail.

  • All, that was helpful. The last poll I saw had the Lib Dems at 15%.

  • Bob: at the risk of stating the obvious, private corporations indeed know what you use your credit cards for. They rarely know what you do without using a credit card.

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