Comment: The dangerous incompetence of the communications data bill

By Emma Carr

The basic arguments behind the communications data bill are collapsing. What has been sold to us as being essential "to catch paedophiles and terrorists" using internet telephone services is not only sinister in its intention to enable the government to monitor and control the internet, but it is ill-informed.

Clearly, the internet is a wholly different domain than calls made from a landline telephone. Yet it has emerged that British police currently receive more data from Skype than any other country in the world; more than the US and more than double from Germany. This mirrors what we already know about Google and Facebook – online companies are already cooperating with the police.

The debate is still out on whether or not the bill is the same as proposed by Jacqui Smith in 2008 (when she ruled out a central database), but if it was to become law then the wider impact could be catastrophic.

In the past week alone concerns have been raised about its economic effect on business, comparisons to North Korea from a Number 10 advisor, a haphazard consultation process and failures to scrutinise existing powers, not to mention the foreign policy ramification. Add to this a group of ten leading academics and computer science experts publicly voicing their objection to the bill and it is quite simply time for it to be ditched. 

The Coalition for a Digital Economy has warned that the bill would make Britain a much less attractive place to start and grow a business, for fear of a Whitehall official one day arriving and saying you had to change the way your business works to provide the data the Home Office wants.

A badly managed consultation process has coincided with a lack of in-depth scrutiny of existing legislation and powers. Research published by Big Brother Watch showed that communications data is already used across police forces and highlighted significant inconsistencies in the way that communications data is being used.

What should be noted by the Home Office is that the research emphasised that it is almost impossible to form a measured view on how the current system is operating given the huge discrepancies in the way forces are recording how they use communications data.

The potential international ramifications of the bill have also lead to fifteen international organisations warning that the government's bill could be used by oppressive regimes. The world is watching whether Britain pushes ahead with a plan to record every person's web browsing, email and social media messages.

If we do, the consequences around the world could be dire. A communications data bill based on paying private companies to collect data on behalf of the state is the wrong approach. It will undermine our digital economy and do little to tackle the lack of expertise within the police to use the huge amounts of data already available

Number 10's own advisor, Ben Hammersley, makes the argument extremely succinctly, warning that the bill could very easily be turned from a force for good into something far more sinister in the future and comparing it to countries like North Korea and other "draconian states".

The Home Office even faces legal action over the bill unless it reveals details of how the 'filtering' system would work. The information commissioner has ordered the Home Office to publish advice ministers received on the design, cost and risks of the new filtering system by May 11th.

Dominic Raab MP, who originally requested the information, has described the bill as creating a "tectonic shift in the relationship between the citizen and the state." There is a serious issue if the Home Office cannot be transparent with members of parliament who, if the bill was to reach parliament, would be required to carry out a necessity and proportionality test by voting in the House of Commons.

The issues around policing cyber space should not change the way that the police work. To claim less data is available now than in previous years and that the police cannot get data from the likes of Skype is clearly misleading.

The question is whether we pass a piece of ill-thought out legislation and divert £2 billion (at a conservative estimate) from front line policing to another Whitehall IT project, or we make sure that Britain has the best trained, best resourced cyber cops in the world.

Emma Carr is deputy director of civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch.

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