The UK government is planning on
passing emergency laws that will require all telecommunications
companies to store data on the public’s calls, texts and internet
The Guardian is reporting that there are
murmurings Downing Street could push through the reforms any day
now after the major parties meet this week to debate the dangers
posed by the ever-increasing threats in Syria.
We have already seen the UK government commit to tightening security at airports after the US
Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson announced new measures
would need to be put in place. Like that announcement, this one
appears to stem from a concern over individuals becoming
“radicalised” during the conflict in Syria, before returning home
to continue the fight.
These fears largely stem from a series of recent footage, often
uploaded onto social media, that appear to show UK citizens taking
part in killings in Syria. There was a video of an execution shared on Instagram and men reportedly
from Cardiff featured in a YouTube video for the Islamic State in Iraq and
Syria (Isis), urging others to join them. Countless other reports
and warnings have appeared in the media over the past 12 months
predicting “floods” of returning fighters, and that coverage
appears to have been ramped up in recent weeks.
Last year Theresa May sought to combat the issue by announcing
that the citizenship of those that partake in the Syrian conflict
would be revoked, singling out 20 individuals at that time. But with the rapid rise of Isis in
Iraq and Syria, there have been multiple reports that the UK could
come under imminent threat.
This appears to be the basis for forcing new surveillance
responsibilities upon private telecommunications companies, the
same companies that thought they had bypassed the threat when the
European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that the 2006 Data
Retention Directive — which would facilitate the UK’s
Communications Data Bill, or “Snooper’s Charter” — was
invalid because it “interferes in a particularly serious manner
with the fundamental rights to respect for private life and to the
protection of personal data”. The original directive demanded
communications data be kept for up to two years, but that and other
elements had been challenged by people in Ireland and Austria.
The ECJ ruling came more than a decade after the UK’s ISP
industry refused to
partake in a voluntary retention programme. ISPs felt it
unnecessary at the time, and the programme would have only been
voluntary under the Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act.
The European ruling in April effectively told the UK government
(and GCHQ) that bulk data collection was not OK. Law enforcement
needs to have specific targets and reasons for collection, for it
to be warranted by law.
The Guardian is now reporting though, that the
government has both Labour and the Liberal Democrats onside to
create these new laws, in spite of the ECJ ruling — though
apparently the Liberal Democrats want assurances it will not be a
backdoor for the so-called Snooper’s Charter. (The Communications
Data Bill also wanted to legalise government deep-packet inspection
of all web traffic in and out of the UK, on top of a 12-month data
retention policy for all ISPs.)
It’s hard to see how any emergency law would be an improvement,
though. Or how it would not be a “watered down” version of the
Snooper’s Charter, as one Lib Dem source promised
the Guardian (apparently something Nick Clegg
won’t stand for that). It seems as though the government wants to
push something through that has already been rejected by Europe’s
highest court, and its own ISPs. A change like this could make
GCHQ’s life a lot easier, and potentially lead to legal
justification (beyond the paltry ones we have already been provided with) for the mass
surveillance of UK citizens.
It’s possible the UK government would make an amendment to the
law that made it keep inline with the EU ruling. But at its core,
that ruling said the directive went against “the fundamental right
to respect for private life and the fundamental right to the
protection of personal data”, particularly because that data would
be stored in bulk, leaving it vulnerable. According to the Register the UK is now apparently proposing for data to be
retained for 12 months, rather than the two years put to the EU, so
it might be it thinks this is a compromise enough.
Whatever the legalese that will be proffered by the government
if this new amendment does come to light, it’s clear the UK
government has no intention of shelving the Snooper’s Charter. When
the ECJ rejected the Data Retention Directive in its current form
in April, a spokesperson for the government told the
BBC: “We cannot be in a position where service providers are
unable to retain this data.”
Equally, last year minster for security James Brokenshire, said
the Communications Data Bill would be introduced “at the earliest
possible opportunity”, again, in spite of widespread concerns about
its legal validity.
Today, a Home Office spokesperson told Wired.co.uk: “The
retention of communications data is absolutely fundamental to
ensure law enforcement have the powers they need to investigate
crime, protect the public and ensure national security.
“We are carefully considering the European Court of
Justice’s judgment on data retention and are currently examining
potential next steps.”
This week’s covert decisions have been a longtime coming, and
seem to be largely unstoppable now. They have arrived in the
midst of a blanket of scaremongering, with the threat of returning
fighters catching more airtime than Snowden’s continued leaks,
and at a time when the UK government is both preoccupied with
validating GCHQ’s mass surveillance of its own citizens, and
preempting the “radicalisation” of British youths.
In June, David Cameron said in a statement: “The most important
thing of all is to stop this radicalisation in the first place.
That’s why my counter-extremism taskforce is about driving out the
extremist, poisonous narrative and getting it out of our schools,
getting it out of our universities, getting it out of our campuses,
getting it out of our prisons, confronting it wherever it appears,
because we know the end part of this extremist narrative can mean
people dead on our own streets.”
It’s of note that MP Brockenshire, back in March, publicly said
that the government needed to extend its controls of online
content. His words, that content “that may not be illegal but certainly is
unsavoury“, should be censored, seem all the
more relevant now these moves are being made to upend UK law in the
context of a media flurry around YouTube videos, Instagram shorts
It might just be that we are seeing the first move to begin a
preemptive strike on that “unsavoury” content.