The Parliamentary Information Office of the Parliamentary Yearbook reports on calls for the Home Secretary to revive the Communications Data Bill.
Following the recent murder of the off-duty soldier Lee Rigby on the streets of London there have been calls from senior figures across political parties to revive the Communications Data Bill (colloquially dubbed “the snooper’s charter”). This has been requested in the interest of national security. At the same time, questions have been raised as to whether legislation of this sort would have been effective in preventing the Woolwich attack.
The Communications Data Bill was proposed to allow unprecedented interception of data concerning online communications and telephone calls. It would have given police and security services access to details of all British online communications without the need for a warrant, which means access to so-called “meta-data” concerning the time and duration of communications, details of the parties involved and the location of the device used. The proposals would have allowed access to every British citizen’s web browsing history and details of emails and messages on social media and Skype. (Access to the content of conversations and messages would still have required a warrant.)
While the Home Secretary Theresa May described the storing of such information as vital in preventing cybercrime many MPs had concerns regarding the potential for private data collected under the legislation to be exploited by criminals. The proposals were criticised as “an invasion of privacy”, “disproportionate” and “draconian”. It was for these reasons that Deputy Prime Minister and Liberal Democrat Leader Nick Clegg vetoed the inclusion of the proposals in last month’s Queen’s Speech and the proposals were shelved.
The murder of Lee Rigby is now being used by senior political figures from all parties as an argument that the bill should be revived. This includes the former Labour Home Secretary Lord Reid and Liberal Democrat peer Lord Carlile who called for the government to reconsider the Data Communications Bill during a recent BBC Newsnight programme. According to Lord Carlile, in light of the Woolwich attack the Government should “pause for thought over its decision to shelve the Bill”. He said: “We must ensure the police and the security services have for the future the tools they need which will enable them to prevent this kind of attack taking place.”
Whilst Prime Minister David Cameron and senior Tory ministers have said that they will not be pressurised into immediate reaction, they have left open the question of additional measures. The Prime Minister said: “After an event like this, it is natural questions will be asked about what additional steps can be taken to keep us safe. I will make sure those questions are asked and answered. But I am not in favour of knee-jerk responses.”
Communities Secretary Eric Pickles is another voice suggesting that the Bill could be re-examined, once the Commons inquiry into Woolwich is complete; an inquiry which has followed confirmation that the men arrested for the murder were already known to MI5.
Despite this, Eric Pickles admitted to the BBC that he had “seen nothing in the reports so far that suggests these communications powers would have made any difference whatsoever”.
Similarly, the Independent reports that security sources have “acknowledged it was unclear whether the Bill’s proposed powers would have thwarted the Woolwich attack” and that they have very significantly “signaled their wariness over being used for ‘political purposes’.”
In relation to Woolwich, London Lord Mayor Boris Johnson said: “It’s much too early to be sure it [the Bill] would have been of any use at all in this particular case”.
Again, according to Senior Liberal Democrat Simon Hughes there was “no evidence at all” that the Bill could have prevented Lee Rigby’s murder.
There have been calls from Former Home Secretary Jack Straw for the intelligence and security services to examine whether the Bill was needed in light of the Woolwich attack in order to ensure an appropriate response. He said: “We need to know whether it would have made any difference. I don’t know. I don’t think John Reid knows. You have got to make sure that the proposals are proportionate.”
Civil liberties campaign groups have made the crucial point. Emma Carr, Director Big Brother Watch said: “It is remarkable for politicians to be jumping to legislation to monitor the entire country when all the evidence to date shows this horrific attack would not have been prevented by the Communications Data Bill.”
The collection of meta-data regarding telephone and online communications has been practiced for some time in the United States as acknowledged recently by the American President. The extent of this United States programme beyond borders is presently a question. The President’s remarks come in response to disclosures by the Guardian newspaper based on the testimony of a former employee of the National Security Agency, as widely reported in the last few days.