RegulationSecuritySurveillance-ITWorkspace

MPs Ask For Clarity On Communications Data Bill

Tom Brewster is TechWeek Europe's Security Correspondent. He has also been named BT Information Security Journalist of the Year in 2012 and 2013.

Committee says government should be more specific about the Communications Data Bill

MPs want greater clarity from the government on its plans to force ISPs to store information so intelligence agencies can get at it easily during investigations, as proposed by the Communications Data Bill, better known as Snooper’s Charter.

The government wants to update legislation so GCHQ and other intelligence bodies can access communications data quickly, and proposals to use controversial “black boxes” for deep packet inspection have been criticised by privacy groups. Now, the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee has questioned the broadness of the legislation.

Snooper’s Charter qualms

Online surveillance © - Fotolia.comPrivacy campaigners up in arms about the implications for people’s personal data, even though the Bill proposes to gather only comms data, showing who contacted who, from where and at what time. Police will be able to draw up a fairly good picture of what people have been up to, and have a very deep insight into the activity of innocent people, warn the campaigners.

The proposals were criticised by a committee of MPs and Lords scrutinising the legislation at the end of last year, who slammed clause one of the bill for giving far too much power to the secretary of state. That clause would allow the home secretary to order any communications provider to store communications data, without any Parliamentary approval. Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg said the Home Office should completely rethink the proposals.

The Intelligence and Security Committee asked for greater transparency from the Home Office on what the bill specifically applies to, in a report released yesterday which responded to criticisms from within the Houses of Parliament and outside.

“We strongly recommend that more thought is given to the level of detail that is included in the Bill, in particular in relation to the Order-making power,” read the report, which was sent to Prime Minister David Cameron.

“Whilst the Bill does need to be future-proofed to a certain extent, and we accept that it must not reveal operational capability, serious consideration must be given as to whether there is any room for manoeuvre on this point: Parliament and the public will require more information if they are to be convinced.”

The report also raised another common quarrel with the Snooper’s Charter, namely that not enough consultation has been initiated with service providers who will be asked to hold on to comms data.

“Whilst we recognise the need to take action quickly, the current proposals require further work. In particular, there seems to have been insufficient consultation with the communications service providers on practical implementation,” the committee said.

However, it backed a number of controversial proposals, including the implementation of a filter. Such a filter would essentially be a search function into a centralised database where all comms data would be stored. Many worry this would be prone to abuse by police who could easily access comms data they are not supposed to see.

The committee said the filter would make accessing information considerably quicker, and that would certainly benefit investigations. “It would save many hours of analysis, and reduce the amount of collateral intrusion from complex communications data requests.”

It did note, however, the technical task setting up such a filter would take, pointing out that the record of government in managing such complex IT projects was “mixed at best”.

Are you a privacy pro? Try our quiz!