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15 January 2015

Following the Paris attacks, David Cameron and the Head of MI5 have renewed calls for new laws to allow greater surveillance of internet communications.

The Conservatives previous attempt to introduce similar rules in 2012 was thwarted by a lack of Liberal Democrat support for the Communications Data Bill —disparagingly nicknamed the “Snoopers’ Charter” by its opponents. The previous Bill was justified as being necessary to plug a gap left by the European Data Retention Directive 2006. The issue then was data retention—the Bill proposed to extend the range of data that communication companies required to hold for at least 12 months.

This time round it, appears Mr Cameron intends to go much further. He has indicated his intention to introduce legislation which would prevent the use of any messaging systems which cannot be accessed by GCHQ and the UK’s surveillance and security organisations. The intention seems to be that any services which use encryption technologies (thus preventing monitoring), will be illegal.

But this could result in popular mobile applications such as WhatsApp, Snapchat and iMessenger being blocked, unless they offer the Government a backdoor to their data.

Offering a backdoor to personal data comes with the increased threat of hacks by cyber criminals. Snapchat was already the victim of wide scale cyber hacking in 2014. The Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, has therefore warned that “cool heads” are required when considering an increase in greater access to personal data in the aftermath of the Paris attacks.

The Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has also hit back saying that his party will continue to oppose a “snooper’s charter”. Civil liberties groups have also expressed concern about the move arguing that such draconian measures will be detrimental to the many legitimate uses of encryption technology.

This resurgent proposal raises more general questions about the extent to which the government should be allowed to manipulate and control the internet, its use and the information it carries. The law enforcement agencies record in this regard is distinctly mixed: the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPSA, in Scotland) were set up as a weapon with which to fight serious crime but unless oversight is effective and authorisation procedures are properly used, RIPA powers can be used for purposes never intended, such as the police using RIPA to access journalists’ phone records. In our next blog we will look at police demands for personal information using the Data Protection Act.

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Ailie McGowan, Trainee Solicitor

 

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