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Brian Paddick writes: Tackling terrorism without compromising the privacy of law-abiding citizens

February 3, 2015 3:02 PM
Originally published by UK Liberal Democrats

Having spoken to the police officers who recovered the bodies of those murdered by terrorists on the London Underground on 7 July 2005, I know the devastating consequences of failing to disrupt terrorism.

In the House of Lords this week, four peers from across the political divide proposed new data security measures be introduced as an amendment to the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill.


This group, comprising of a former police chief, a former Intelligence Minister, a former Independent Reviewer of Terrorism legislation and a former Foreign Secretary proposed introducing a so-called Snoopers' Charter.

Thankfully, and following pressure from the Liberal Democrat benches, the amendment was withdrawn.

I spoke in yesterday's (Monday 2 February) debate, as I did in last week's debate on the same issue, arguing against them and here's why.

These amendments would have given the Home Secretary the power to order communications service providers to keep whatever data about our internet activity she happens to think is, or may in the future be, useful to the police or the security services.

Anyone in these organisations could make a request for the data, which could for example include every website you have visited over the past 12 months, without a court order, without your knowledge and on the basis of suspicion rather than evidence.

A joint committee of both Houses of Parliament said of the clause in the Data Communications Bill that these amendments replicate, was far too broad, did not have sufficient safeguards and the costs could potentially be prohibitive. In short, it was disproportionate.

Lord West, the former Intelligence Minister said on Radio 4's Week in Westminster last weekend, that he would not have voted for the amendments he put his name to last week and yet they are being tabled again without addressing the Joint Committee´s criticisms.

At the moment, communications service providers will generate a certain amount of data revealing who sent, who received, and the when and where of communications (what's "on the envelope" but not the content) using fixed lines, mobile phones and internet services.

Where this data is kept by communications service providers, it can be requested by various public authorities when someone is suspected of crime.

People are now communicating via the Internet using relatively new services like FaceTime, Skype, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, and while the Data Retention and Regulatory Powers Act 2014 requires any UK communications service provider who keeps "envelope" data for their own business purposes to retain it for up to 12 months.

Very few of these new services are based in the UK, and much of the information is encrypted and held on servers owned by the likes of Facebook and Google in the USA, beyond the jurisdiction of UK courts.

These amendments would have allowed the Home Secretary to serve notices on UK communications providers as well as the likes of Facebook and Google, requiring them to keep any and all "envelope" data for up to 12 months.

This includes, for the first time, the retention of 'web logs' - records of all the websites that citizens have visited over the course of the last year.

Whether or not you agree with the Liberal Democrats that this is disproportionate, UK law does not apply in the USA and the proposals are contrary to American laws that require these companies to keep their data confidential, at least from foreign governments.

This US data is obviously transmitted to users in the UK by UK communication service providers, so the other provision is to force UK-based communication service providers to ¨skim-off¨ the American ¨envelope¨ data and store it, in case the police and security services need it.

In order to do this will require billions of pounds of investment in new systems to enable the UK communication service providers to capture, store and where possible decipher 12 months' worth of communications data for every user in the UK.

US companies like Facebook are obviously aware of what is happening here, as well as the threat from hackers and less scrupulous foreign states, and they are actively and continuously developing greater levels of encryption which mean that even if it was intercepted and kept by UK communication service providers, the data cannot be deciphered.

It is commercially necessary and a legal requirement in the US that they do this.

Even if these amendments were enacted, it is unlikely US companies would comply and it is unlikely UK companies could make sense of the encrypted US data they intercepted.

More has to be done to provide "envelope" data to the police and the security services in genuine cases of serious crime and terrorism whether communication between criminals and terrorists is by mobile phone or via the internet.

But given the inescapable fact that the internet is global and borderless, this can only be done effectively in consultation with the communication service providers and in collaboration with overseas server owners and foreign governments, particularly in the United States.

That is why the coalition government has appointed Sir Nigel Sheinwald as a special envoy on international data sharing to sit down with the US government and US companies to identify human rights-compatible ways of overcoming clashes of legal jurisdictions, so we can tackle crime and terrorism effectively without compromising the privacy of the law-abiding majority.

In 2013, US companies processed around 30,000 requests for "envelope" data from UK authorities, so there is already consultation and collaboration and it is producing results.

These amendments were disproportionate, likely to cost billions of pounds, would have jeopardised what we already have and were unlikely to produce what the police and security services need.

I am proud that Liberal Democrats led the charge to defeat this cynical attempt to reintroduce the so-called "Snoopers' Charter" in the House of Lords.

We will continue to block attempts to bring back these provisions in any form to defend the civil liberties and privacy of innocent people across the UK.