The Draft Communications Data Bill, more commonly known as ‘The Snooper’s Charter,’ is piece of legislation that was originally proposed by Theresa May in 2012, when she was the Home Secretary. The legislation would hold mobile phone companies and Internet service providers responsible for ensuring that the data of their users be held for a period of 12 months.
This data, which would include records of social media activity, emails, voice calls, messages, would be accessible to a wide range of parties, including but not limited to: the Metropolitan Police, the City of London Police, the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the Police Service of Scotland, British Transport Police, the Military of Defense, GCHQ, the Department of Health, HM Revenues and Customs, the Serious Fraud Office and the Ministry of Justice.
May had planned for the legislation to be enacted as a law in 2014 however, this was halted when the former deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, withdrew his support for the bill in April 2013. On the back of the Conservatives winning the elections in May of 2015, May made it clear that she would once again attempt to see the draft legislation (now modified from it’s origin incarnation) enacted.
While this unprecedented intrusion upon personal freedom was spearheaded by the Conservatives, it is worth noting that Labor attempted to introduce a similar bill back in 2008 with the Interception Modernisation Programme, which would have extended the government’s powers to intercept and store communications data.
Invasive powers granted
The bill gives security services the right to hack into mobile phones, computers networks and servers, as well as the right to install key loggers (a piece of software that records and uploads every key that is entered into a device, effectively allowing for total monitoring of what they are typing) onto a person’s device, unbeknownst to them. Security services won’t be given a completely free reign to do this; they would need to obtain a warrant in order to do so.
Perhaps more problematic is the granting of rights to allow security services to “bulk hack.” If somebody outside of the UK has garnered the interests of security services, they would be able to hack on a large scale upon a certain geographical area; this imprecise method would result in the data of many innocent people being obtained.
The need for these new powers
Proponents of the legislation see it as a much needed step towards giving law enforcement agencies the powers they need to effectively combat new threats such as terrorism. Home Secretary Amber Rudd defended it as “word-leading legislation that provides unprecedented transparency and substantial privacy protection.”
“This Government is clear that, at a time of heightened security threat, it is essential our law enforcement, security and intelligence services have the powers they need to keep people safe. The internet presents new opportunities for terrorists and we must ensure we have the capabilities to confront this challenge. But it is also right that these powers are subject to strict safeguards and rigorous oversight.”
Potential dangers of such powers
History is littered with examples that should serve as red flags when it comes to the granting of powers as invasive, and as seemingly imprecise, as this. The FBI’s COINTELPRO activities are but one incidence of this that highlight what can ensue once these doors are opened. Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and most other civil rights leaders of the past century were of the few who were targeted by surveillance programs. History has vindicated these men and then some; they have been recognised as powerful, positive forces that helped improve whole nations.
That they would be targeted by surveillance programs (and much worse – see the FBI’s attempts to convince Martin Luther King to kill himself) highlights just how wrong security services can get it. Handing over the keys to another persons right to privacy often leads to misuse of this power. And these misuses occurred under the relatively sober watches of likes of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson; can you imagine what might ensue if these powers were given to a President Trump (or worse).
The opposition will continue
On being passed by both Houses, opponents of the bill began a petition to repeal it, successfully obtaining the required number of signatures (100,000) to force parliament to debate the issue. While the bill might have already been passed, and the battle seemingly won, the war is not yet over. Writing in the Independent, Liberty’s Silke Carlo stated, “Everyone has a stake in guarding our democracy, protecting minorities from suspicionless surveillance, defending protest rights, freedom of the press, and enjoying the freedom to explore and express oneself online. These freedoms allow our thoughts, opinions and personalities to flourish and develop – they are the very core of democracy…(the) fight is not yet over. Our message to Government: see you in court..”
A heavier blow to the bill came but a week ago as the EU’s highest court, The European court of Justice (ECJ) in Luxembourg ruled that “general and indiscriminate” storing of emails by governments as being illegal. The conservative MP David Davis, along with Labor’s Tom Watson, brought the case to the EU court in hope of clarifying the EU’s laws on surveillance, anticipating that this would contradict the bill.
In the summary of their ruling, the 15 ECJ judges wrote, “The fact that the data is retained without the users of electronic communications services being informed of the fact is likely to cause the persons concerned to feel that their private lives are the subject of constant surveillance. Consequently, only the objective of fighting serious crime is capable of justifying such interference… legislation prescribing a general and indiscriminate retention of data … exceeds the limits of what is strictly necessary and cannot be considered to be justified within a democratic society.”
Ultimately, we are repeatedly being told that terrorists pose an existential threat to our way of life, our democratic values and our existence as a whole. As abominable as terrorist acts are, and as reprehensible as the criminals who carry them out might be, in the face of the numbers and the data, this claim does not quite add up. When we talk about existential threats, might a strong case be made for the Snooper’s Charter itself being a significant threat to our core freedoms.
A full list of the 48 organisations that will have access to the data of individuals is:
Metropolitan police force
City of London police force
Police forces maintained under section 2 of the Police Act 1996
Police Service of Scotland
Police Service of Northern Ireland
British Transport Police
Ministry of Defence Police
Royal Navy Police
Royal Military Police
Royal Air Force Police
Secret Intelligence Service
Ministry of Defence
Department of Health
Ministry of Justice
National Crime Agency
HM Revenue & Customs
Department for Transport
Department for Work and Pensions
NHS trusts and foundation trusts in England that provide ambulance services
Common Services Agency for the Scottish Health Service
Competition and Markets Authority
Criminal Cases Review Commission
Department for Communities in Northern Ireland
Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland
Department of Justice in Northern Ireland
Financial Conduct Authority
Fire and rescue authorities under the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004
Food Standards Agency
Food Standards Scotland
Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority
Health and Safety Executive
Independent Police Complaints Commissioner
NHS Business Services Authority
Northern Ireland Ambulance Service Health and Social Care Trust
Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service Board
Northern Ireland Health and Social Care Regional Business Services Organisation
Office of Communications
Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland
Police Investigations and Review Commissioner
Scottish Ambulance Service Board
Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission
Serious Fraud Office
Welsh Ambulance Services National Health Service Trust