How Britain’s “Snoopers’ Charter” Might Affect You

Philip Bates 23-01-2015

PM David Cameron has announced that if his party wins May’s General Election, he’ll revive a Bill that keeps track of your online activity and phone calls.


The Conservative leader entered into an uneasy coaltion partnership with Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats in 2010 – but if Cameron returns to Downing Street this May with a majority, he’s disclosed plans to push The Communications Data Bill through parliament.

Everyone is aghast at his intention to supposedly ban instant messaging services like WhatsApp Why Snapchat & iMessage Could Really Be Banned In The UK Speaking to a room full of party activists in Nottingham, Prime Minister David Cameron declared that encryption for messaging would be banned should his party gain a majority at the next General Election. Read More , but that is just part of the full draft legislation.

What Is It Actually?


The Communications Data Bill, nicknamed the Snoopers’ Charter, was initially proposed in 2012, but was somewhat squashed by the Liberal Democrats and a report by the Joint Committee which said it needs to be “significantly amended.”

In the wake of the shootings in Paris, focusing on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, Cameron has stated that The Communications Data Bill will help combat terrorism. If passed in its present form, it will force internet providers, social networks, and telecommunication firms (such as BT, Sky, and Orange) to keep records of all users’ activities, including browsing history, calls, and messages. It’s this last proviso that threatens WhatsApp, iMessage, and other encrypted messaging. The data would have to be kept for 12 months, so intelligence agencies could access it.


It’s important to note that Downing Street has denied that the Prime Minister intends to ‘ban’ those apps… although actual details of what is planned are sketchy at best. (There are even concerns about WhatsApp privacy settings Everything You Need to Know About Your WhatsApp Privacy Settings As with all communication tools, privacy is of utmost importance. Here's how to protect your privacy when using WhatsApp. Read More now that Facebook has taken over.)

(For those wondering, private browsing isn’t exempt: even though there are various advantages to it Not Just for Porn: Other Uses For Private Browsing Private-browsing mode has many other names, including "incognito mode" in Chrome and "InPrivate Browsing" in Internet Explorer. Some people refer to private-browsing mode as "porn mode", but it isn't just for porn addicts. It can... Read More , providers still track the sites you visit with ease.)

But Isn’t That Already Happening?

In a way, yes. The Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill, nicknamed DRIP Privacy In The UK: The Data Retention And Investigation Powers Bill Read More , rushed through parliament far too fast for a vote to be taken on it (and was one of the many privacy breaches in 2014 that might’ve gone under your radar Five Breaches To Your Privacy in 2014 That You Might Have Missed Numerous publications revelled in the private lives of celebrities in 2014, a year in whcih the spotlight also shone on the general public. Can we learn anything from these breaches? Read More ); some even called DRIP “a snoopers’ charter by the back door… without any of the political outrage which derailed [the draft Communications Data Bill].”

DRIP was an extension of previous laws, notably the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA), 2003 Communications Act and the 2009 Data Retention Regulations. It was implemented as the European Court of Justice ruled collection of telecommunications data as at odds with the European Convention on Human Rights.


A “sunset clause” will see DRIP expire in 2016…

And so, it seems, the Snoopers’ Charter is a further extension to encompass encrypted messaging and internet history.

Sections 3 and 4 of the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill also state that, while data is stored for 12 months, the Secretary of State can issue “further provision about the retention of relevant communications data” – or in other words, information can be stored for even longer! It’s unclear if this will apply to The Communications Data Bill too.

Why Are People Worried About The Snoopers’ Charter?


Firstly, using the attacks in Paris as an excuse to push through legislation contrary to the notion of privacy and free speech is seriously bad taste – especially as Charlie Hebdo remains an ambassador for freedom.

Home Secretary, Theresa May, says message content won’t be collected; David Cameron, too, stated that they will only retain “communications data rather than the content of a call.” Instead, the Bill could, in theory, include retention of data about message recipients, frequency, and locations – namely, the metadata Avoiding Internet Surveillance: The Complete Guide Internet surveillance continues to be a hot topic so we've produced this comprehensive resource on why it's such a big deal, who's behind it, whether you can completely avoid it, and more. Read More . In a criminal court case, for instance, it may not matter what a message says, as long as it’s established that two people know one another or even that they contacted each other on a specific date.

That might sound fine, except a lot of statistics can be extracted from even limited information: that is, after all, how providers draw up demographics about their customers. That’s not all: social media sites like Facebook and Twitter would also need to collect information about you – this can all indicate your social status, circle, and preferences.

And who knows what behaviour would result in your details being passed on? These grey areas are just one reason the Snoopers’ Charter is making Rights campaigners nervous.


That’s the core issue here: Human Rights. Is terrorism the price for freedom? How much do we sacrifice to live without constant fear of shootings and bombings? And, bearing in mind that many suspects (the shooters responsible for the Charlie Hebdo killings included) are on watchlists but aren’t considered a big enough threat at a given time, how effective is this data in countering terrorism?

Even Labour MP, Tom Watson, argued that DRIP was “democratic banditry resonant of a rogue state”: does this description extend to the Snoopers’ Charter?

It Can’t All Be Bad… Can It?

Theresa May stated that:

“I remain passionately convinced that our ability to fight back against networks of child abusers – not to mention protecting national security – means that we need to address [gaps in our law enforcement and intelligence agencies’ capabilities], as set out in the government’s draft communications data bill published in 2012.”

Announcing his intentions on 12th January, Cameron also said, “That vital data is crucial not only in terrorism, but in finding missing people, in murder investigations, in serious crime investigations.” The Guardian‘s Ken Macdonald says: “It’s hard to think of a single piece of heavyweight criminal litigation in recent years that hasn’t included communications metadata: not the content, but the fact that calls were made, by and to whom, and when and from where.”

And aside from this, many telecommunication and Internet providers already keep these records anyway for research and marketing purposes. Facebook sells your data on What Does Facebook Selling Your Data Mean For Privacy? Read More (and so could you! Facebook Makes Money Out of Your Data, Why Shouldn’t You? There are so many free services online because companies can profit from the data you provide. Companies like Facebook sell (or buy) your data to third parties, while ones like Google use your data to... Read More ). If this data is collected regardless, is there much harm in it potentially being passed onto intelligence agencies? However, it could be argued that collection for business is an entirely different thing from submitting information unnecessarily to the state…

What Can We Do About It?

Put down your pitchforks! It’s not law yet!

Even if the Conservatives get back into power come May, The Communications Data Bill would have to pass through committees before being put to parliament. And then there’s opposition from the general public: in 2012, a YouGov poll found that only 6% of those surveyed thought the Government makes a clear and compelling argument for the Bill.

While DRIP continues until 2016, its successor is still only a possibility – especially as revisions will need to be made.

Image Credit: I-Spy (Kit); Department for Business, Innovation, and Skills.

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  1. Doc
    January 24, 2015 at 10:58 pm

    Sounds like you have pretty much the same problem we do "across the pond." Like the US, it's time to oust the politicians by voting for those who respect the Constitution/Magna Carta and want to preserve liberty.

    • Philip Bates
      January 30, 2015 at 8:25 pm

      Yeah, you're right - the only problem is pinpointing which parties actually want to preserve liberty! That's a big problem, especially with a General Election in May: who the heck do we vote for?!

  2. Rob
    January 24, 2015 at 3:36 pm

    As mentioned on another of my comments which you replied to, I think this begs the question: is this a problem with regulation/snooping, or is it a slippery slope/application question? There will always be some form of snooping on citizens, which is unavoidable- in some cases, it may even be desirable. And there will always be different points where people think it's 'gone too far', yet the line that marks where 'too far' is, is fairly arbitrary. The questions is, is the snoopers charter 'too far'? Maybe CCTV was too far? Or maybe neither are. Maybe 'too far' lies exactly where you said- in RFID chips.

    - Are security guards on school gates too far?
    - Is social services keeping a 'secret' eye on parents who're suspected of child abuse 'too far'?
    - Is following around a benefits claimant to see if they're falsely claiming too far?
    - Is recording CCTV of your own employees too far?
    - Is needing to give up information such as your employment status and marital status when applying for a visa to another country too far?

    Are we looking for an objective answer where one doesn't exist?

  3. Rob
    January 24, 2015 at 11:48 am

    I'm still in two minds about this, and would like to speak with a few lawyers about their opinion. If it really *does* help to combat child abuse at the expense of a department being able to, if they so wish, see that I called my mum 35 times last year, then it's hard to see much of an issue with it. That being said, I understand there are more complexities at work here, so I'll withhold judgement for now...

    • dragonmouth
      January 24, 2015 at 3:10 pm

      "If it really *does* help to combat child abuse"
      While trying to "combat child abuse" is a very noble goal, what if a government passed a law manadating that every inhabitant of a country be implanted with an RFID chip? Would you have an issue with that? Because, slowly but surely, we are heading towards that. 1984 is just around the corner.