United in surveillance: The snooping stitch up

The surveillance stitch up: Secret talks resurrect communication snooping powers
The surveillance stitch up: Secret talks resurrect communication snooping powers
Ian Dunt By

The three main parties cast aside concerns about privacy today with a secret deal allowing police and security agencies easy access to people's phone call data.

The deal will see emergency legislation introduced next week to ensure phone companies keep information about their customers' calls for 12 months.

It is part of a frenzied government response to a European court of justice ruling which struck down the 12-month rule, saying it was an infringement on privacy.

Ministers now insist that the emergency law is required to maintain their current legal powers and counter the threat of extremists returning from Syria and Iraq.


But civil liberties advocates are furious with the government's refusal to comply with the European ruling.

There are also questions about why the emergency legislation is being introduced so suddenly while MPs are away in their constituencies.

"It’s a stitch up," Labour MP Tom Watson told the Today programme.

"It's a secret bill between three parties and it'll go through next week because they've done that deal.

"MPs form views on legislation by asking their constituents, talking to lawyers, finding out the impact of what it could be, scrutinising bills.

"If you're an MP you probably shouldn't bother turning up to work next week because what you think doesn't matter."

Fellow Labour MP Chris Bryant tweeted: "I'm deeply suspicious of hasty emergency legislation supposedly necessitated by a court judgement from this April."

Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, said the government had had months to respond to the European ruling, but only chose to do so now because it was about to have to drop the powers.

"The government knows that since the ruling there is no legal basis for making internet service providers retain our data, so it is using the threat of terrorism as an excuse for getting this law passed," he said.

"The government has had since April to address the ruling but it is only now that organisations such as the Open Rights Group are threatening legal action that this has become an 'emergency'.

"Not only will the proposed legislation infringe our right to privacy, it will also set a dangerous precedent where the government simply re-legislates every time it disagrees with a decision by the European court.

"The ruling still stands and these new plans may actually increase the amount of our personal data that is retained by ISPs, further infringing on our right to privacy."

All three party leaders are keen to maintain their reputation on civil liberties, but the secret deal casts a particularly harsh spotlight on Nick Clegg, whose party members feel particularly strongly about the issue.

He and David Cameron will insist that no new powers are being handed to authorities and that new safeguards are being introduced.

"I believe that successive governments have neglected civil liberties in the pursuit of greater security," Clegg said.

"We will be the first government in many decades to increase transparency and oversight, and make significant progress in defence of liberty.

"But liberty and security must go hand in hand. We can't enjoy our freedom if we're unable to keep ourselves safe."

The legislation has a sunset clause after two years. It is not automatically renewed.

An independent privacy and civil liberties oversight board will be set up to interrogate legislation and its likely impact in the future. It will be based on David Anderson's existing role as the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation.

The number of organisations which can approach phone and internet companies and ask for communications data will be limited, with local councils having to go through a central authority.

Annual transparency reports will also be introduced seeing how often the security agencies ask for data and under which bits of legislation.

The controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa), which handed councils and authorities powers to put people under surveillance, will also be reviewed.

But despite the new initiatives, the emergency legislation shows how effective police and security agencies are at getting ministers to fulfil their demands with warnings of successful terrorist attacks.

The announcement comes on the same day Big Brother Watch warned of payments being made by the state to communications firms totalling almost £65 million so that they can retain data over a six year period.

"It is clear that communications service providers are being paid with one hand and silenced with another," acting director Emma Carr said.

"If the government wants to force communication service providers to retain citizens' data then this must go hand in hand with greater transparency.

"Companies like BT and others are taking taxpayers' money to store data on how we use their services, but doing absolutely nothing to educate their customers about what is going on.

"It's time for them to back greater transparency, or people will think they are keeping quiet to protect their Home Office pay check."

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