“My government intends to bring forward measures to maintain the ability of the law enforcement and intelligence agencies to access vital communications data under strict safeguards to protect the public, subject to scrutiny of draft clauses.” —The Queen’s Speech, 2012
There, peeking out amongst the 19 bills announced during the Queen’s Speech a few days ago, was the worst kept secret in current discussions of legislative reform on the issue of intrusive surveillance: also called the Draft Communications Data Bill.
Whilst the details of the bill are not yet complete, the idea is to allow competent institutions—the police and intelligence agencies, but also possibly other Whitehall departments and local Government, to have real-time access to internet communications meta-data. That is, knowledge of the existence rather than the content of our emails, Facebook messages, tweets, etc. This is presumably based on the proposition that knowing how pieces of communication collectively form networks can pay dividends for security, whilst also being less intrusive than prying into their contents.
It is also called, by anyone who doesn’t like it, the “Snooper’s Charter.” Privacy and civil liberty groups like Big Brother Watch and Liberty, and politicians like David Davis, have condemned the bill as illiberal, intrusive and indiscriminate. The largest upswell of opposition has so far focussed on the fact that, if such surveillance is to be real-time, it cannot be subject to a prior warrant by either magistrate or minister. However, under the current law that governs this kind of intercept, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (or RIPA), this kind of communications meta-data can already be collected for a wide number of reasons (say, the collection of tax), by a wide number of bodies (say, the Environment Agency) on the internal authorisation of a senior member of that agency. How this will change under the new bill is not clear, but it seems unlikely that the bill steps over a dark Orwellian threshold, as suggested by its critics.
Getting bogged down in a debate about the difference between the existence and content of a message misses the point somewhat. Nearly everyone accepts that the government will sometimes need to access information intrusively. What they expect is that…