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Online Communication’s bill: safety measure or espionage?

Parliament has proposed a controversial bill that will potentially give them access to details of the public’s internet activity without needing a warrant.


Fayida Jailler

There have recently been debates in Parliament over the proposed bill that will allow the UK government to access and store information on people’s personal internet usage.

Whilst some MPs insist that the bill will help to protect society and combat crime, there have been concerns raised that the bill might potentially compromise the general public’s internet privacy.

If passed, the bill will give UK intelligence agencies access to communications data and the right to monitor what people post online.

Internet server providers – including firms such as BT, Virgin and Sky – will install “black boxes” in order to filter and decode encrypted social media and e-mail messages.

This will provide details such as the date and duration of a single conversation and the e-mail addresses of the correspondents involved, however the content of the communication will not be shown.

Content would only be disclosed if the intelligence service first obtained a warrant. Details of internet phone calls and activity on online gaming sites will also be made available and all information will be stored for a period of twelve months, during which time four bodies will be able to access the data: the Police, the Serious and Organised Crime Agency, government intelligence agencies and HM Revenue and Customs.

Security services have expressed concern that criminals are increasingly using social media and online gaming sites to communicate with each other, thereby avoiding detection.

In a recent letter to the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, insisted that legislation was needed to “protect the public and bring offenders to justice by ensuring that intelligence agencies can continue to operate effectively in an age of internet communications”.

She clarified that there would be strict safeguards surrounding the obtaining and use of all communications data, adding that the proposed bill was “essential to solving crime in the 21st century.”

Theresa May

The Home Secretary stated that these methods are already in use by the police when investigating crimes including child abuse and terrorism, and are used each week to obtain the evidence used in courts nationwide.

She noted that access to communications data plays “a major role in 95% of all serious organised crime investigations”, and that police would only be able to obtain the required data provided they had demonstrated that such a course of action was both necessary and proportionate.

May justified the bill by saying that in a modern society in which internet based communication is more widely used than ever, intelligence agencies must continue to have “the tools they need” in order to combat crime effectively and bring criminals to justice.

Critics of the bill claim that it compromises internet privacy and will not necessarily lead to more security. Rachel Robinson, the Policy Officer for Liberty, said that law enforcement should be targeting specific suspects, not British citizens as a collective.

She added, “Just like the internet, any private home can be a crime scene, but should we install hidden cameras and microphones in every bedroom in the land?” Tory Backbencher, David Davis, also described the bill as “incredibly intrusive”.

Liberal Democrat MP, Julian Huppert, stated that the bill gave the Secretary of State “far too much power” and described the idea of black boxes monitoring every online information flow as “clearly unacceptable”.

Internet activist, Aaron Swartz, predicted that one danger of the bill would be hackers or rogue government officials trying to steal the stored information. He likened the bill to “opening up every letter sent through the post office so the government can make a copy- just in case”.

A draft form of the Communications bill has been published, though it still faces much opposition from MPs who wish for it to be altered or abandoned.

Implementing it is estimated to cost around 1.8 billion pounds over the next ten years, though the Home Office claims that during that time it will save over three times that amount as it will make investigations faster and more efficient.

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