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Anticipating the Communications Data Bill

Anticipating the Communications Data Bill

Following the aftermath of the tragic killing of soldier Lee Rigby in a suspected terrorist attack, the passing of the Communications Data Bill seems to becoming a very real possibility. The Conservative Party believe that if this Bill was to become law, it will prove effective in helping to prevent similar terror attacks in the future.

The Communications Data Bill will allow the police and intelligence services access to the UK’s online communication history.

So what exactly is the Communications Data Bill and what will it mean for the public?

The Communications Data Bill will allow the police and intelligence services access to the UK’s online communication history. This includes details of the time, duration, originator and recipient, the location of the device from which communication was made and extends to accessing web history and messages sent via social networking sites such as Facebook. Currently, the police can only identify who has made a phone call or sent a text message and the specific location, date and time. However, under the proposed Bill, in order to view the actual content of the messages sent, a warrant would have to be obtained from the Home Secretary.

Originally, the Bill was met with fierce opposition from the Liberal Democrats, with leader Nick Clegg preventing its inclusion in the Queen’s speech. Clegg stated in 2012 that:

We all committed ourselves at the beginning of this coalition to learn the lessons from the past, when Labour overdid it, trying to constantly keep tabs on everyone. We have a commitment in this Coalition Agreement to end the storage of internet information unless there is a very good reason to do so.

The extent of his opposition can be summed up in his explicitly clear statement that the Communications Data Bill is ‘certainly not going to happen with Liberal Democrats in government’. The Party felt that allowing such laws would seriously infringe the UK citizen’s right to privacy under the Human Rights Act 1998, leading Clegg to nickname the Bill ‘The Snoopers’ Charter’.

The Bill is believed to help prevent these types of attacks in particular.

However, following Lee Rigby’s murder, Clegg is increasingly finding himself alone in his viewpoint. The killing of Rigby was not a thoroughly planned and thought-out attack that one would usually associate with terrorist activity. Indeed the decision to attack a random person on the street with a knife and meat cleaver could have been thought up within a few hours. The weapons used can be found in the majority of homes and there were few obstacles in the way of them carrying out their plan.

The Bill is believed to help prevent these types of attacks in particular. Ben Wallace, an MP and a parliamentary private secretary, showed support of this stating that:

[S]imple, short-notice, terror attacks have very few vulnerabilities that our security services can exploit. One of the few vulnerabilities they do have is communications. If there are capabilities we could give our law enforcement agencies to keep us safe then we should not stand in the way.

Wallace has had support from many prominent political figures who feel reconsideration of the Bill is vital. For example, Lord Carlile, a Liberal Democrat and former government reviewer of counter-terrorism, stated that:

[W]e must ensure that the police and the security services have for the future the tools they need that will enable them to prevent this kind of attack taking place. I hope that this will give the government pause for thought about their abandonment…of the Communications Data Bill.

Carlile’s stance is only further supported by those who have expertise in the area of security, such as Lord West, who believes the Bill is ‘absolutely crucial’ and Clegg’s opposition is in fact ‘putting the country at risk’.

[She] fears that the Bill would only drive suspected terrorist activity underground into encrypted services to avoid detection.

However, some still are questioning the effectiveness of passing the Communications Data Bill and also the possible unintended consequences such legislation would have.

Emma Carr of the civil liberties campaign group, Big Brother Watch, has explained her fears that the Bill would only drive suspected terrorist activity underground into encrypted services to avoid detection. It would make the capture of these dangerous individuals more difficult, completely defeating the objective of the proposed Bill. In addition, Carr believes access to our online history will make ‘Britain a less attractive place to start a company and put British companies in the position of being paid by the government to spy on their customers’.

One thing we can be certain of from Carr’s statements is that if the Bill was to become law, the ramifications of this will affect areas that have not necessarily been made obvious by the Government and indeed new problems may well arise.

Many politicians, including Eric Pickles and Simon Hughes, have also voiced the opinion that if the powers under the Bill were already in place before Rigby’s murder, it still could not have been prevented. Boris Johnson, a keen supporter of the Bill, has even acknowledged this.

It seems that there is no general consensus on whether the Communications Data Bill will in fact provide a solution to the problems it intends to overcome. Not only are there unintended consequences, there are also issues concerning the extent to which it infringes on the right to privacy. Many argue that there are already substantial procedures in place to track the communications of terrorists and criminals. The attack carried out on Lee Rigby was so primitive that the contents of the Bill could not have stopped it from happening.

One conclusion that can be made, though, is that the Bill should not be passed off the back of this tragic event. Only if after a proper inquiry, investigation and research the Government still believe that the Bill will make the UK safer, and there are effective and practical procedures in place to stop abuses of power and data mismanagement, should the Communications Data Bill become law.

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