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We’re in Bristol24/7

Regular readers will be aware that Bristol Wireless is deeply concerned about the implications of the Government’s proposed Communications Data Bill (news passim). Yesterday the secretary (aka the chief scribe. Ed.) has had the article below posted on local news website on Bristol24/7.

In June of this year, the Government published its draft Communications Data Bill, dubbed a Snoopers’ Charter by opponents. Under this Bill, internet service providers and mobile operators such as Virgin Media, BT and Vodafone would be obliged to log the internet, email, telephone and text message use and retain this data for 12 months.

Furthermore, the draft Bill also seeks to demand communications data from such social media sites as Facebook and Twitter that are based overseas, as well as search engines like Google.

As such, these powers are overly broad, infringe the citizen’s right to privacy and would divert crucial funds away from other areas of policing at a time when front-line policing is generally facing cuts of some 20%. The serious criminals, terrorists and paedophiles, who the Home Office says this Bill targets, would still be able to avoid detection by taking fairly simple measures. By taking such a broad brush approach, the population of the UK would be transformed from a nation of some 60 million citizens to a population of some 60m criminal suspects.

A Joint Committee of MPs and peers was set up to examine the draft Bill. On Tuesday, December 10, the Joint Committee report was published and delivered a damning verdict on the Home Office. It says the Home Office gave “fanciful and misleading” evidence for “sweeping” powers that go beyond what they “need or should”.

Furthermore, the Joint Committee’s report also criticised the projected £1.8 bn. cost of implementing the Bill’s proposals, reckoning that this cost will probably be exceeded “by a considerable margin”. In view of central government’s past record on IT projects, the Committee’s assessment will more than likely prove true.

There is no doubt that current laws to monitor communications are outdated and were not drafted for a digital age where there is more personal data being created than ever before. However, the Communications Data Bill is not the answer. It should not simply be redrafted with minor modifications and resubmitted to Parliament, as the Prime Minister and Home Secretary seem committed to doing, judging from their public statements since publication of the Joint Committee’s damning report.

Even under the present arrangements, 600 public bodies have potential access to citizens’ data and 500,000 surveillance requests were made last year.

The UK needs a full review of surveillance laws before any new laws – such as the Communications Data Bill – are drawn up. The review should consider how pervasive and personal data has become. It should also examine how to bring about proportionate and appropriate powers for the collection, storage and use of our data.

The Home Office has shown itself to be unable to strike an appropriate balance between security and privacy and appears to be wholly ignorant of the technical issues involved with policing online crime, such as the use of encryption. It should take part in a review but must not be allowed to lead it.

The Communications Data Bill is akin to using a sledgehammer to crack a nut and, if implemented would place the UK on a par with repressive regimes like Iran and China, which HM Government likes to criticise for their illiberal measures without being able to recognise their own hypocrisy.

I would urge everyone with an interest in their own privacy and liberties as a citizen to lobby their MPs to kill this Bill and request a review of surveillance laws as outlined above.

Steve Woods is secretary of Bristol Wireless – a volunteer-run community co-operative established in 2002 to supply open source ICT to businesses, the community and voluntary sector and the general public.