Queen’s Speech: Battle Brewing Over Access To Crooks’ IP Addresses


Government says it may legislate on providing police with better access to people’s IP addresses

Whilst the Communications Data Bill, known to its critics as the Snooper’s Charter, was left out of the Queen’s Speech today, proposals to enable the “investigation of crime in cyber space” were in, presaging further squabbles over privacy.

The Queen, outlining the plans of the Coalition government for the next year, said the proposals would look at “the problem of matching Internet protocol addresses” to real people – something that both privacy advocates and law enforcement officials are keen to see addressed.

“In order to know who has actually sent an email or made a Skype call, the police need to know who used a certain IP address at a given point in time,” read government briefing notes on the Queen’s Speech. “Without this, if a suspect used the Internet to communicate instead of making a phone call, it may not be possible for the police to identify them.

Shutterstock - © Petar Paunchev - surveillance“The government is looking at ways of addressing this issue with CSPs [communication service providers]. It may involve legislation.”

Queen’s Speech day

It was in last year’s Queen’s Speech that the draft Communications Data Bill became a reality. It sought to let police gain access to people’s communications data, which did not include the content, but the who, when and where of messages sent over Internet. It would also have let police figure out what websites people had been visiting.

Thanks to privacy fears, the bill was effectively killed off in its current form when deputy prime minister Nick Clegg said it would not become law as long as the Liberal Democrats were in power. As a leftover from the Snooper’s Charter, however, the issue of IP address access remains the focus of heated debate.

Police are still stunted in their investigations where IP addresses are difficult to obtain. Services such as Tor and VPNs make it particularly tricky for suspects to be tracked down online.

Making sleuths’ lives even more difficult, many communications providers give multiple users the same public-facing IP address, using what is known as Carrier-Grade Network Address Translation (CGNAT), currently employed by BT.

But onlookers have called for plans to remain proportionate with adequate safeguards for citizens’ privacy. Whilst Big Brother Watch agreed police should be able to track the user of an IP address, it said the Home Office should properly think through its proposals as it apparently failed to do during the formation of the Communications Data Bill.

“If small, technical changes to existing legislation are required, then they should be properly thought through before being subject to the widespread consultation and comprehensive scrutiny that has been sorely lacking to date,” Emma Carr, deputy director of Big Brother Watch, told TechWeekEurope.

A Home Office spokesperson said the proposals were still being put together, declining to comment on any specifics of the upcoming plan. It remains unclear whether they will eventually become part of wider legislation.

Other tech-related announcements in the Queen’s Speech included a bill that will seek to help businesses protect intellectual property, which will be based on the recommendations of the Hargreaves Review. The government hopes the law will bring a benefit of around £200 million per annum to the UK economy.

There are also plans to “reduce the excessive burden on new businesses”, although a spokesperson from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills did not provide any further details.

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