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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, 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 now that Facebook has taken over.)
(For those wondering, private browsing isn’t exempt: even though there are various advantages to it, 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, 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); 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?
— John Clarke (@JohnClarke1960) January 16, 2015
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. 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 (and so could you!). 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?
'If privacy is outlawed, only the outlaws have privacy.' #snooperscharter
— Duncan Stott (@DuncanStott) January 16, 2015
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.