Event Recap: Index debates the UK's "Snooper's Charter"
Marta Cooper: Debating whether we need a "snooper's charter" to safeguard our security
18 Oct 12

If passed, the UK’s draft Communications Data Bill — also known as the “Snooper’s Charter” — will make room for the blanket storage of information on British citizen’s emails, text messages and internet activity. Companies would have to collect data they don’t currently retain, and the Home Secretary would have the power to request communications equipment manufacturers install hardware to make spying easier.

With these concerns in mind Index hosted a panel on the bill today chaired by trustee John Kampfner, who was joined by Index CEO Kirsty Hughes, Demos’s Jamie Bartlett, Emma Ascroft of Yahoo and Ian Brown from Oxford University.

There was consensus over the bill’s red flags, particularly its broad language and wide extension of surveillance powers to anyone who provides telecommunications operating systems. This would include social networks and domain name registries.

For Yahoo’s Emma Ascroft, it was unclear what consideration the UK’s Home Office had given to jurisdiction boundaries. The broad nature of the bill means the UK would be the first country to extend its jurisdiction, creating a reserve power to “require UK providers to retain data that they could not obtain directly.” The Home Office has acknowledged, Ascroft said, that the UK would be the first country to extend its jurisdiction in this way, but added there will be a “tension” where UK citizens’ data is available to foreign law enforcement authorities. This would, she warned, lead to a “complex patchwork of overlapping laws”.

Of equal concern was them chilling effect the bill could have if passed, as Index CEO Kirsty Hughes described:

It risks undermining anonymity, particularly whistleblowing, if user data can be tracked and comprehensively collected.

But despite conceding no other democracies had gone as far as the UK proposes to go, Jamie Bartlett felt the bill didn’t go far enough. Emphatic that he was “in favour of regulated, transparent and clear powers of surveillance”, he said there were far greater problems posed by the ability of the government to access open source social media content, which is currently not covered by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA). Writing for Index today, Bartlett said:

This type of widespread, mass social media monitoring needs to regulated, limited, and put on a legal footing.

Yet the fact that the bill is not subject to judicial oversight, combined with the prospect of a backstop power, worried some. For Oxford University’s Ian Brown, the latter went to “the heart of proportionality”, which Index and other rights groups have flagged as one of the bill’s greatest flaws.

“The Home Office has to come out of its comfort zone,” Ascroft concluded, pointing to internal conflict over the bill. “The Foreign Office, justice department, culture department, they all have anxieties.”

While she predicted the bill would be amended, Hughes suggested there was  a risk this would not go far enough. “We need the UK’s voice out there defending digital freedom,” she said.

The joint committee on the bill is due to report on 30 November.

Written evidence to the draft bill has been collated here

Index’s own submission is available here