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The recent Queen’s speech has officially confirmed controversial plans for the Government to expand on the level of monitoring of UK citizens online in a bid to fight terrorism and to keep pace with technical changes such as social networks.

Neil Watson, Head of Service Operations

Neil Watson, Head of Service Operations

The new Communications Capabilities Development Programme (CCDP) has been brought into force by none other than The Conservatives, who ironically slammed a similar bill raised by Labour called the Interception Modernisation Programme (IMP). We covered the topic back in 2008, with: ‘Are we living in “1984”?’ and also in July last year with: ‘Big brother returns with a new name’.

Currently, ISPs are required by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) and EU Data Retention Directive to maintain logs of the times, dates and IP addresses of website and email accesses for a 12 month period, which is only accessible via an interception warrant. However, the new plans will see UK ISPs forced to allow the GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) ‘real-time’ access to their customers’ online activities without a warrant. The data will include information on contacts, time and duration of communications, telephone numbers used, as well as a person’s whereabouts when making a call. It will also include the monitoring of social networks like Facebook and Twitter, online video games, instant messaging and Internet phone services such as Skype. A warrant will only be required to access the actual content of the data, such as the content of an email.

The Government has outlined a number of safeguards which they hope will relinquish fears about the Bill. These include a twelve month limit on how long the data is held for; measures to prevent unauthorised access; strengthening independent oversight and using tribunals to consider complaints. Somehow, we don’t think this will prevent fear.

Unsurprisingly this new Bill is facing huge amounts of criticism and is expected to cause fierce debate when it comes to Parliament. Some Conservative backbenchers and their coalition partners, The Liberal Democrats, are against the plans. The Lib Dem’s president, Tim Farron recently vowed the party would “kill” the proposals if they were not watered down.

Already, a proposed amendment could see search engine searches added to the revised bill in a bid to capture paedophiles and sex offenders. This is all well and good, but what about innocent people? The amount of information that can be learnt about someone based on what they search for is immense, which is why we strongly agree with Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Word Wide Web who says: “The amount of control you have over somebody if you can monitor Internet activity is amazing. You get to know every detail, you get to know, in a way, more intimate details about their life than any person that they talk to because often people will confide in the Internet as they find their way through medical websites … or as an adolescent finds their way through a website about homosexuality, wondering what they are and whether they should talk to people about it.”

Without the use of warrants to view this sensitive information, it’s going to be wide open to abuse. People need to be suspected before they are put under surveillance. Simply spying on everyone without a warrant or court order is not acceptable and should be a breach of people’s privacy rights.
As yet, the Government has not revealed any technical details about the plans. All that is known is that ISPs will be responsible for maintaining a local log of online activities. It has however been reported the use of black boxes or large data centres could be used to store such information, especially from third party services such as websites. What we would like to know is who will be footing the bill? In our view it should not be funded by ISPs in any way.

There is some small hope from the European Commission, who could veto the Bill because it conflicts with the existing European Law. However this is only if there are no ‘safeguards’ put in place to protect the data, although these were promised in the Queen’s speech.

It is our belief this whole Bill is pointless. The true criminals will simply circumnavigate such surveillance by using VPNs and proxy servers. Why would they incriminate themselves when they know they’re being monitored? Instead it will be the innocent general public that will take the brunt. All we can hope for is that someone will see sense before a totalitarian state such as in the classic novel by George Orwell “1984” takes hold.

Have your say

What do you think about the draft Communications Bill which has been revived by the Conservatives? Do you think they are doing right by our country in their bid to protect us? Or do you think this draft Bill is going too far? We would like to know your thoughts, so please leave us a comment below.

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