By Nick Pickles
MPs of all parties have spoken out about the communications data bill, expressing a range of concerns. With the pre-legislative scrutiny nearing conclusion, Big Brother Watch hosted events at the three main party conferences on the plans, which would allow the Home Office to spy on your emails and social media.
Speakers at the events included Stella Creasy MP, Dominic Raab MP, vice chair of the Bar Council Maura McGowan QC, Lib Dem Voice's Mark Pack and Katie Clarke MP among others, with a range of delegates attending to voice their opinions and ask questions.
Highlighting the range of concerns about the bill, a whole host of issues were identified and questions posed – many of which have also been made by the joint committee looking at the Bill.
The legislation would involve creating detailed records of all our digital communications in a way no other democratic nation does and critically gives the home secretary an entirely new power to instruct communications companies to monitor how their customers use other services. The technical feasibility of this in an age of increasing encryption and anonymous communications was a common theme of all three events.
At all three events, I started by asking the panellists that it was a fair argument new communications were going to cause new problems, so wasn't it right for the government to look at solutions?
The Open Rights Group's Jim Killock made a point that has been well versed in recent months, saying that the central problem with the bill is that nobody outside a handful of Home Office officials is allowed to know what the problem is. As a result, we have a very vague – and very broad – piece of legislation lacking in an evidential basis.
Equally, as speakers regularly pointed out, this also makes it hard to offer alternatives. Dominic Raab MP and Maura McGowan QC both advocated a far greater use of warrants and external oversight, while Dominic highlighted the fact that in several high-profile investigations, including the Ian Huntley case, the issue was not a lack of data but a failure to join-up the data held. David Davis MP spoke from the audience to re-iterate this point, highlighting how the 7/7 bombers were on the radar of the security services, but not prioritised.
One topic discussed at every event was the role of existing legal arrangements, the mutual legal assistance treaties (MLAT) and whether the problem was the speed of this process. As Dominic Raab highlighted, the bill would not give police "Jack Bauer-style real time access" so the issue that appears most pressing is the speed of existing arrangements, not the lack of any arrangements. This point has been made by several US-based communications companies, who already hand over data to UK law enforcement and are struggling to understand what additional data the Home Office is concerned about.
Labour's Stella Creasy, who holds the shadow Home Office brief for the draft bill, detailed a number of concerns that she hoped would be dealt with by the pre-legislative scrutiny, including whether this was the best way to tackle the problem. Her own experience with the EDL organising in her constituency through social media had highlighted the need for the police to have the ability to deal with new technology. The broader capabilities and capacity of the police, particularly as budgets were being cut, was a debate that she felt needed much more attention, questioning if the bill was the best way to deal with the new technological landscape.
Her concerns were shared by Katie Clarke MP, who questioned how robust the evidence was behind the policy and expressed another common point that the likelihood of the project coming in on budget – already £2 billion – was slim. Katie also raised the issue.
Index on Censorship's Mike Harris highlighted how privacy was a key aspect of free expression, questioning Labour's reluctance to wholeheartedly oppose the legislation given the experience of Labour politicians in both the trade union movement and more recently in phone hacking cases as vivid demonstrations of the risks of these kinds of powers. As Mike pointed out, the information about who you are talking to can be incredibly revealing irrespective of whether you don't see content – as Index's experience with activists in countries that do not respect human rights testifies.
Dr Jenny Woods, speaking at the Lib Dem event, also echoed concerns expressed by security experts to the joint committee, warning that the bill and the technology needed to implement it could weakening the country's communications infrastructure resilience. This was also taken up by Stella Creasy, who questioned to what extent the legislation was 'future proof'.
One of the common themes at the events was the debate about whether the bill worsened an already bad situation under Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa), something Big Brother Watch raised recently in our report into the counter-terror powers. Many have highlighted how Ripa is part of the reason problems are now arising with new technology.
Equally, the Home Office's rhetoric about paedophiles and terrorists was criticised at every event, with a range of speakers and audience members arguing that this kind of language helped no-one. Attempts to portray those opposed as 'libertarians' were particularly badly received, and from the strength of feeling from those across the political spectrum evident during conference season is a lazy and patronising attitude to take.
What happens next?
There are concerns across all parties about this legislation, as there were when the last Labour government proposed it. Many of the concerns expressed during conference season have also been made to the joint committee by a range of technical experts, communications providers, civil society representatives and the committee's report is certain to be critical to the future of the bill.
One thing is for sure – the debate is a long way from over.
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