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Communications Data Bill: What’s in the online snooping proposals?

What is the Communications Data Bill? 

The Communications Data Bill is a set of proposals that will allow the Home Secretary and security forces to access online ‘communications data’, that is the time and the duration of, say, a Skype chat between individuals, the originator and recipient of a VoIP call or email, the number of email addresses and where available the location of the device from which the communications were made.

Latest news for the Communications Data BillThe Queen’s Speech in 2012 formally announced the Government’s highly controversial bid to extend state surveillance of electronic communications. So what exactly does it propose?

Surveillance cat by Mr Sparkle/FlickrWhat the Communications Data Bill will do

According to the Home Office, the CDB will establish an ‘updated framework for collection, retention and acquisition of communications data’ with a broad scope to cover rapidly developing forms of online communication.

The data would be available only to designated officers, on a case by case basis, authorised under the law and the process will be overseen by the Interception of Communications Commissioner.

Communications providers will be required to record the time and duration of a communication, the number or email address which has been contacted, ‘and sometimes the location of the originator of the communication’, and keep records for up to 12 months

Other ‘strict safeguards’ will include measures to prevent unauthorised access or disclosure of communications data. The information commissioner will oversee the destruction of this confidential data after 12 months.

Monitoring of data and complaints about its use or storage will be overseen by the communications commissioner, Sir Paul Kennedy, and a technical advisory board and judges on the investigatory powers tribunal.

‘Real time’ monitoring will only be approved for cases involving active terrorist plots, and in hostage or kidnapping situations where lives are at risk.

What the Communications Data Bill won’t do

The Home Office says the CDA will not provide the police and others with new powers or capabilities to intercept and read your emails and phone calls. Police will have no power to access communications data where it is not connected to a criminal investigation.

There will not be a single government database containing your emails and phone calls to which the police and agencies can get unlimited and unregulated access.

The Home Office says it will not weaken current safeguards or checks in place to protect communications data.

It will not allow local authorities greater powers. The Protection of Freedoms Bill, enacted this month, now forces local authorities to apply to magistrates for the first time to obtain certain types of data.

What we don’t know about the Communications Data Bill

Who will store the data: ISPs and mobile phone operators will be an obvious candidate for communications via email and text-messaging. It’s not clear who will store communications data passed through closed, internet-based networks such as Twitter and Facebook, instant messaging or even messaging within computer games.

Overseas services: Many communications services are owned and operated by companies based outside the UK. It’s not clear how the government expects to compel these bodies to hand over their data to identify individuals of note from their user names. Nor is it clear how it expects to identify communications data on these services from the general volume of internet traffic.

Images: tvol/Flickr and Mr-Sparkle/Flickr

Latest news for the Communications Data Bill

MI5 boss pours scorn on ‘heroic assumptions’ of Snooper’s Bill

MI5 boss pours scorn on ‘heroic assumptions’ of Snooper’s Bill​The Communications Data Bill has taken yet another pasting, this time from MI5 boss Sir Jonathan Evans and the Intelligence and Security Committee.

In an ISC report published in redacted form on Tuesday (obtained by the Guardian), Evans derided the Government’s plans to monitor every web and mobile communication of every citizen as resting on some ‘pretty heroic assumptions’.

The Committee of MPs and peers chaired by Sir Malcolm Rifkind calls for more work to be done on the Bill, specifically on how exactly ISPs will monitor subscriber activity and make this available to security forces and how they will keep this data safe.

Also, the fast pace of change online needs to be addressed if the Bill is to be in any way effective.

“We recognise that changing technology means that the agencies are unable to access all the communications data they need, that the problem is getting worse, and that action is needed now,” conclude the MPs and peers.

The Home Office has claimed a “capability gap” – the gap between tracking data and security forces ability to do so – of 25 per cent, the accuracy of which the Committee is skeptical of.

Last December, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said that the Bill in its current form was not robust enough and needed to be sent ‘back to the drawing board’. Information Commissioner Christopher Graham has warned that the proposed dragnet would only catch ‘incompetent criminals’ while the real criminals would slip through undetected.

The Communications Data Bill is currently on the draft stages (aka a white paper), meaning it needs to be rewritten and represented before it becomes a green paper and begins the lengthy process of going through the Commons and Lords before being given Royal Assent and passed into UK law.

February 6, 2013

Back to the drawing board, says Nick Clegg

The draft form of the controversial Communications Data Bill has taken a pasting from a committee of MPs and Lords, with Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg calling for the bill to “go back to the drawing board.”

Lord Blencathra, Chair of the Joint Committee agreed, saying that a “substantial re-writing of the Bill” is needed “before it is brought before Parliament as we feel that there is a case for legislation, but only if it strikes a better balance between the needs of law enforcement and other agencies and the right to privacy.”

As well as this, the Committee criticised the current cost-benefit analysis of the draft Bill for being ‘not robust’ and too wide in scope.

Communications Data Bill: Back to the drawning board, says Nick Clegg

The conclusion of the report states that: ‘the current draft Bill is too sweeping, and goes further than it need or should,’ and that a new law to punish anyone who abuses the powers be written into law. Any ‘wilful or reckless misuse of communications data [should become] a specific offence that is punishable, where appropriate, by a prison term,’ perhaps mindful of a repeat of the Leveson inquiry years down the line.

Those hoping for a total defeat of the Bill however should note the Committee is in favour of a Bill to “aid the work of law enforcement bodies,” albeit one that’s severely less wide in scope than the current proposals.

“The breadth of the draft Bill as it stands appears to be overkill and is much wider than the specific needs identified by the law enforcement agencies. We urge the Government to reconsider its zeal to future-proof legislation and concentrate on getting the immediate necessities right. We are confident that the safeguards already in the draft Bill, together with our recommendations to strengthen those safeguards, will do just that.”

Home Secretary Theresa May said back in June on the publication of the draft Bill, that: “Communications data saves lives. It is a vital tool for the police to catch criminals and to protect children. If we stand by as technology changes we will leave police officers fighting crime with one hand tied behind their backs.”

May is determined to get the Bill written into law before the general election in 2015. It’s looking increasingly likely that the volume of dissent over will see that deadline missed.

Image credit: Steve Parsons/PA Wire via Flickr

December 11, 2012

Only ‘incompetent criminals and anarchists’ will get caught

Just as we hear that current research methods used by the MPAA wrongly fingered thousands as file-sharing pirates comes more condemnation for the UK Government’s Communications Data Bill.

The Information Commissioner Christopher Graham has described the current plans as ineffective, telling a committee of MPs that only “incompetent criminals and accidental anarchists” would get caught with the “really scary people” changing and adapting their online behaviour so as not to arouse suspicion.

The Data Communications Bill proposes that all but the smallest of the UKs ISPs will have to keep records of their subscriber’s online activity for up to 12 months.

Graham added that career criminals and terrorists looking to avoid detection would simply use a smaller ISP and they’d be “home free”.

Elsewhere, Sir Paul Kennedy, who reportedly once suggested that local councils make more use of snooping powers, is in favour of the bill. According to the BBC, Sir Paul said: “We are unsighted in one section of the market and we are in a world which is still extremely volatile.

“Against this background, what is now being sought is not about the amount of information in the public domain but it is about requiring service providers to retain certain information – which can only be accessed in a proper way and when it is shown to be necessary and proportionate to access it.”

October 17, 2012

Twitter, Virgin Media, O2, Vodafone, ISPA criticise Comms Data Bill

Twitter, Virgin Media, O2, Vodafone and broadband providers’ group ISPA have levelled pages of criticism at the Communications Data Bill for threatening their business and international legal risks.

The attacks are among almost 450 pages of written evidence to the Parliamentary Joint Select Committee considering the Bill, from dozens of businesses, individuals, government agencies, and other groups – so there’s a mix of viewpoints. We advise you to have a look.

With submissions from such as defences intelligence contractor ADM Shine Technologies and the Serious and Organised Crimes Agency, as well as Big Brother Watch and Privacy International, there’s a mix of voices in favour of, and against the bill.

Twitter’s concerns focus on the international implications of keeping data which could come from non-UK citizens, and Britain’s international reputation for freedom of speech, as well as the lack of notice for itself or its users if broadband providers are keeping user’s data.

ISPA warns that the Bill does not seem to balance the requirements of law enforcement, privacy of users and the impact on business. It has the potential to put the UK at a competitive disadvantage, and a significant extension of the current capabilities.

They also question whether the proposals are technically possible on the scale envisioned and add: “Far too much discretion is given to the Home Secretary without the necessary Parliamentary oversight to ensure that significant changes proposed are proportionate and necessary.”

O2 and Vodafone’s comments broadly mirror ISPA, while Virgin adds that an obligation to provide data from its commercial third parties could damage its relationships, particular with partners based overseas. 

September 14, 2012

Public Consultation on Snooper’s Charter closes

The British public no longer has the ability to submit evidence and opinions on the draft Communications Data Bill.

The draft Bill, known as ‘the Snooper’s Charter’, lays out proposals for the police, HM Revenue and Customs and UK intelligence services to monitor the web activity of citizens without written permission from the home secretary or secretary of state.

Ostensibly drafted to help combat terrorism, prevent bullying, harassment and other online abuse, the plans have been criticised as being intrusive and threatening to individual citizens’ liberties.

Last month, the Government issued a Call for Evidence, opening up the draft Communications Data Bill to public input. Today is the the deadline for public submissions, but the Joint Committee will continue to hear evidence, debating the bill in September. The full report is expected in November, at which time the Government will decide on the next stage of the Bill’s existence.

August 24, 2012


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