Theresa May Rebuffs ‘Snooper’s Charter’ Criticisms Before Committee

Home secretary Theresa May today faced the Joint Committee scrutinising her department’s proposed Communications Data Bill today, known amongst its critics as ‘Snooper’s Charter’.

The draft bill has been hammered by privacy advocates for its lack of clarity and its broad provisions, including one requiring all communications providers like BT, Virgin and even social networks like Facebook to store data on all UK citizens for 12 months.

That data, as May reiterated this afternoon, does not include content, but who was communicating with whom, where they did so from and at what time.

One of the biggest changes from current legislation would lie in how police can get at data. Where before they had to get a warrant from a court, they will only have to go through internally-run processes under the bill’s proposals. Onlookers are concerned that would open door to abuse of the system.

Theresa May wobbles

The home secretary, batting away the committee’s questions on privacy, only wobbled thrice.

When asked about how much interaction the government had with communications providers, May claimed there had been a number of “good discussions” with a number of CSPs in the run up to the release of the draft and after that.

“We have been having conversations about CD [communications data]… As we get closer to drawing up an actual bill we will talk more,” she said.

Yet committee chair Lord Blencathra, and other members of the group, said many provider responses indicated they only had contact after the bill was published.

When questioned over discussions with rights groups, May could only say she had met with one body, but could not name it.

Later, Julian Huppert MP asked whether the bill was designed to help catch only terrorists, paedophiles or serious criminals, as indicated in a piece the home secretary had written for The Sun newspaper. May denied she had said the bill would solely target those classes of criminal.

Yet as Huppert noted, May wrote: “There are no plans for any big government database. No one is going to be looking through ordinary people’s emails or Facebook posts.

“Only suspected terrorists, paedophiles or serious criminals will be investigated.”

Black box future?

It had been suggested the comms data would be stored in what are known as “black boxes”, designed to separate communications data and content, which May claimed was possible. But May would not be drawn into confirming whether such black boxes would be shoved into ISPs at the government’s request.

TechWeekEurope was told by sources familiar with the matter earlier this year that officials behind the bill were planning on ditching the black box idea.

As for criticisms over the breadth of the bill, May said it required flexibility so the bill was not redundant by the time it became an Act, which is unlikely to happen before 2014. It still has to be made into a formal bill and go through Parliament first.

“We don’t just find ourselves with a bill that as soon as it comes into play has gaps in it,” May said. “The more you prescribe on the face of the bill the more it does tighten your hands.”

May did not confirm whether Home Office officials had decided on amendments to the bill before it went to Parliament. “I’m not able to say how much we would look at until I have seen the reports of the committee… we recognise the interpretation of certain parts of the draft have been misinterpreted.”

She did not appear closed to the idea of a central body for monitoring police access of data, however. Yet she was still uneasy with the concept of creating a new organisation. “I have a natural disinclination to creating new bodies.

“My view would be that police forces are able to provide robust processes internally. They … have the proper hierarchies in place.”

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Thomas Brewster

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

View Comments

  • Ignoring the privacy issue how is this bill going to help prosecute? These are just IP addresses and no content, so you have no proof who is communicating. Even if used as a way of retrospectively following illegal activity it may give a false picture with innocents being pursued rather than the real criminals.

    Lot better to have ability to intercept full communications (phone taping etc) under a warrant issued by an independent court.

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