UK Government Plans for Online Monitoring
A Parliamentary committee report on the Government’s draft Communications Data Bill is out, and it tells of poorly informed plans, “fanciful and misleading” figures and a threat to civil liberties; the conclusion is that serious reconsideration is needed. Here’s a roundup of the context for this bill and the story so far.
The Communications Data Bill was drafted by the Government in June 2012 and calls for changes in the law to give police greater access to information about citizens’ online behavior. Updates to the law in this area are arguably needed, since fighting serious crimes such as terrorism and pedophilia must involve online investigation and the law has not recently been brought up to speed to reflect the prevalence of internet communication.
In its new report, the Parliamentary committee has expressed the same sentiment, but criticized the extent to which the draft bill would change the law. As many critics have pointed out, there is a difference between updating the law to meet the needs of the police in 2013, and giving the Home Secretary unprecedented powers to snoop on the private information of law abiding citizens. Teresa May says she has no intention to use many of the powers the new bill would give her; Parliament argues that therefore she need not be granted these powers in the first place.
In order to gain access to the huge amounts of data being proposed in the bill, Internet Service Providers (ISPs such as TalkTalk etc.) would be required to retain and store details of all online communications in the UK for a whole year. Internet providers could be forced to alter their policies and terms and conditions to give police access to this personal customer data.
Online tracking is something which most internet users are aware of on some level; from being served adverts based on browsing history to the increase of personalized results in Google searches. But whether these changes drive you crazy or help you find what you need quicker, there is generally an opt out. You can access and erase the information Google stores about you; the new cookie law requires that all sites let you reject their cookies if you choose; and anti-tracking software is downloaded in the millions every week.
The Communications Data Bill would make tracking your online movement compulsory, and your broadband supplier would be forced to do this. This raises serious concerns about privacy and civil liberties. Whether it is even possible for the ISPs to access and store such huge amounts of data remains to be seen, and there is certainly a risk that the associated cost of this could ultimately be passed on to broadband customers. The draft bill has been further criticized precisely because ISPs have largely been left out of the discussion, so that their concerns and expertise have not informed the plans to nearly a great enough extent.Continued on the next page