Queen’s Speech: Communications Data Bill

May 8, 2012

The Queen’s Speech included the following: 

‘My Government intends to bring forward measures to maintain the ability of the law enforcement and intelligence agencies to access vital communications data under strict safeguards to protect the public, subject to scrutiny of draft clauses.’  

According to the Government’s briefing notes, the purpose of the Bill is to protect the public by ensuring that law enforcement agencies and others continue to have access to communications data so that they can bring offenders to justice. The main elements of the draft Bill are said to be:

·        Establishing an updated framework for the collection and retention of communications data by communication service providers (CSPs) to ensure communications data remains available to law enforcement and other authorised public authorities.

·        Establishing an updated framework to facilitate the lawful, efficient and effective obtaining of communications data by authorised public authorities including law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

·        Establishing strict safeguards including: a 12 month limit of the length of time for which communications data may be retained by CSPs and measures to protect the data from unauthorised access or disclosure. (It will continue to be the role of the Information Commissioner to keep under review the operation of the provisions relating to the security of retained communications data and their destruction at the end of the 12 month retention period)

·        Providing for appropriate independent oversight including: extending the role of the Interception of Communications Commissioner to oversee the collection of communications data by communications service providers; providing a communications service provider with the ability to consult an independent Government / Industry body (the Technical Advisory Board) to consider the impact of obligations placed upon them; extending the role of the independent Investigatory Powers Tribunal (made up of senior judicial figures) to ensure that individuals have a proper avenue of complaint and independent investigation if they think the powers have been used unlawfully.

·        Removing other statutory powers with weaker safeguards to acquire communications data.

The briefing notes are at pains to make it clear that communications data is information about a communication, not the content of any communication. It does however include the time and duration of the communication, the telephone number or e-mail address which has been contacted and ‘sometimes the location of the originator of the communication’.

An ICO spokesperson said:

‘We are waiting to see the detail of what is proposed, including any role envisaged for the Information Commissioner. We shall then have to judge whether the Commissioner’s current powers are adequate for the task or whether additional powers and resources will be needed. It remains our position that the case for this proposal still has to be made, and we shall expect to see strong and convincing safeguards and limitations to accompany the Bill.’

Jim Killock, Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, reacted promptly, saying:

‘This is a direct attack on the Coalition’s promise to end the storage of email data without good reason. Gaining access to your Facebook and Google data without court supervision is not preserving powers, it is a massive extension of the ability of a police officer to see what you are doing. It would be wide open to abuse, endangering whistleblowers and journalists’ sources.

The interception powers open a whole new can of worms. No law has ever previously claimed that people’s communications data should be collected by third parties just in case. This data has never been previously collected.

This Bill could mark the end of the government’s reputation as a force for protecting our freedom and privacy. They should scrap it now.’ 

The Editor welcomes further comment on the draft Bill proposals.