Digital surveillance in the UK

UK ministers are preparing a major expansion of the government’s powers to monitor the online activities of every person in the UK. The law, set to be officially outlined at the Queens’ Speech next month, will detail the Government’s plans to legally require internet companies to install hardware enabling GCHQ (the Government Communications Headquarters) to record and have access to the digital communications data of all UK residents. This would include but not be limited to data relating to phone calls, texts, emails, web browsing, Facebook updates, and Skype communications.

The policy, ostensibly in a bid to increase public safety ahead of this summer’s Olympic Games, comes In spite of a previous attempt to introduce a similar law being abandoned by the former Labour government in 2006 in the face of fierce opposition. In a statement, the Home Office confirmed “It is vital that police and security services are able to obtain communications data in certain circumstances to investigate serious crime and terrorism and to protect the public.”

Even if these proposals were to come into law the GCHQ would not have access to the content of communications without a warrant. There would only be on-demand access to information such as the duration of phone calls, when emails were sent and with whom individuals are in contact with, with additional access requiring a warrant. This breach of individuals’ privacy is still a cause for concern, however, as it goes beyond the information currently held on all non-digital communications.

Unsurprisingly, the proposed legislation has split political opinion. Ministers in support have insisted that the new laws will simply broaden the scope of the powers the police and intelligence agencies currently possess to cover new forms of communication. Justice Secretary Ken Clarke said in an interview with the BBC, “With communications, at the moment, records of all phone calls are kept and can be accessed. Technology has moved on… so what is proposed is the rules nobody was complaining about when it was telephone calls should now be extended to others, with the same safeguards.”

In opposition, senior Tory backbencher David Davis said the proposals represented an unnecessary extension of the power of the state to “snoop” on its citizens. The European Commission, which has in the past pulled up the British Government over online privacy breaches, would also be likely to object to this latest proposal to monitor innocent British (and EU) citizens, which could potentially breach European human rights laws. Digital expert Trefor Davies has also been quoted in the British press as saying: “[The legislation]…is not only likely to be wasted money but will be a step towards entering a category of nation currently occupied by the likes of China and Iran.”

The Queen’s Speech, which marks the beginning of the 2012-13 parliamentary session, will take place on 9 May 2012.