Katrina Gajevska, vice-chair of the Labour Campaign for Human Rights, explains the threat from the Communication Data Bill, known as the 'Snooper's Charter'.
Civil liberties advocates should gear up for battle as the number of politicians coalescing around the idea of mass surveillance increases. While the Communications Data Bill has been rejected in its initial form, we are likely to see it again. The ‘Snooper’s Charter’ is merely dormant, waiting to resurface when the right moment comes. Given the recent revelations about Tempora and the increasing support for snooper-style legislation, the British public must have a clear understanding of what infrastructure is in the making.
In the proposed surveillance system, private companies are forced to pass on digital intelligence about all individuals to a designated public body. The idea is that if a criminal investigation should arise, the data could be sifted through to detect suspicious activity. Even though the proposals do not include the content of communications, communications data are an equally powerful resource.
Thanks to the deep packet inspection (DPI) technology, companies are able to gather data regarding who you email and when, which websites you visit and the length of your Internet calls. They are also able to track down communications to IP addresses and geographical locations. This allows the government to create communications-based profiles of users and to detect behavioural patterns on the network. It also facilitates complex data mining. Quoting Angela Patrick from her article for the Open Rights Group, based on such technology, ‘the source of an embarrassing leak could be identified by cross-correlating records to pick out exactly who in Whitehall sent out an email whose reception by a journalist triggered an immediate call to the relevant newspaper editor.’
Surveillance powers are currently regulated by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA). By and large, RIPA is flawed. First, it does not require a judicial warrant to authorise interception of communications data. According to Justice, there have been 2.7 million requests for communications data since the Act was passed (this number might be higher, given that the full data has not been published). Of those 2.7 million requests, only 0.5% were approved by a judge.
What is more, while RIPA authorises surveillance in the name of ‘national security’ and ‘the economic well-being of the UK’, it does not contain a definition of these. It is this vagueness and weakness of accountability that allowed Tempora to happen and did not stop the Lawrence family and environmental protesters from being surveilled.
RIPA’s deficiencies aside, digital surveillance en masse is still a disproportionate measure. While it certainly makes sense to forage through an individual’s online activity when there is strong evidence that they might be breaking the law, treating all users as potential criminals smacks of hysteria and gives rise to far-reaching implications.
It is also crucial to understand that opposition to widespread online monitoring is not just about privacy, but also how the system of interdependent freedoms define democracy. There are no superfluous civil liberties – if we allow the government to watch us in the way envisaged, we risk allowing it to correlate information about protests, dissent and the pursuit of justice against the state apparatus. It is worth remembering that the right to privacy protects both the apolitical and the political life of citizens.
Thus, it is disappointing to see that Labour’s response to the Communications Data Bill and Tempora has so far resembled tacit consent, if not outright support. Having listened to voices from all corners of the Labour Party, a group of concerned members, of which I am part, have launched a campaign in order to push for a fundamental rethinking of Labour’s strategy regarding civil freedoms. We are the Labour Campaign for Human Rights. We think it is time all members and sympathisers constructively engaged with the party on digital snooping, helping it to understand this is not something we can afford to get wrong. After all, online surveillance will surely reappear as a prominent concern as we continue to find ourselves in the midst of a struggle against terrorism and crime. It is our sincere wish that the Labour Party bring Westminster to sobriety on this issue.
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