Snowden slams UK emergency surveillance legislation

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden has condemned the UK’s emergency surveillance legislation being rushed through parliament

Whistleblower and former NSA contractor Edward Snowden has condemned the UK’s emergency surveillance legislation being rushed through parliament.

The legislation is due to be debated on Tuesday 15 July and complete all its parliamentary stages two days later.

If passed, it will reinstate powers struck down by the European Court of Justice in April, enabling the government to force phone and internet firms to retain and hand over data.

Justifying the move, David Cameron said: “I am simply not prepared to be a prime minister who has to address the people after a terrorist incident and explain that I could have done more to prevent it.”

He emphasised that the data retained would not include the content of messages and phone calls, just details of when and whom the service providers’ customers had called, texted and emailed.

But Snowden (pictured) said he is concerned about the speed at which it is being done, the lack of public debate and increased powers of intrusion, in an interview with The Guardian in Moscow.

He said it is very unusual for a government to pass an emergency law such as this in circumstances other than a time of total war.

Increased internet surveillance

Snowden likened the move to the Protect America Act introduced by the US in 2007, which used concerns about terrorist threats to justify and preserve intelligence gathering operations.

The Protect America Act was passed at the request of the NSA after revelations about the agency’s warrantless wire-tapping programme.

Snowden said the bill was introduced into Congress on 1 August 2007 and signed into law on 5 August without any substantial open public debate.

The UK government claims its new legislation will not increase the powers of surveillance agencies, but internal Home Office papers appear to confirm that there would be an expansion of powers, according to The Guardian.

Civil liberties groups argue that the new legislation contains new and unprecedented powers for the UK to require foreign companies to comply with interception warrants and communications data access requests.

The Conservatives have long resisted calls for a review of surveillance laws, but have agreed to a review of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) in exchange for support from Labour and the Liberal Democrats for the emergency surveillance legislation.

The support deal also includes a termination clause that will see the powers expire at the end of 2016 and several other undertakings to improve transparency and accountability of surveillance operations.

Online privacy concerns

Tom Burton, a partner in KPMG’s cyber security practice, said that while the UK still needs a modern surveillance law to cope with new communications tools that have become a central part of crime and terrorism, the current contradiction between EU and UK legislation is not in the interests of law enforcement agencies, the telecoms industry or the individual.

“That is why regulations which will help protect citizen’s individual privacy are needed – but it has to be something that protects a fundamental human right, while protecting them from threats and criminal acts that span both the cyber and physical domains,” he said.

According to a recent KPMG survey of consumer opinion, 76% of the population said the government should do more to protect their online privacy. 

“The government is clearly under pressure to do more to defend citizens from cyber crime and unlawful surveillance, but there is a careful balancing act to avoid breaching individual privacy,” said Burton. 

“Irrespective of this legislation, with its attendant sunset clause, this is a debate that is unlikely to go away, particularly while there is ambiguity around what powers exist where and for what purposes.

“The stated intent is to create greater clarity, which should be applauded, but there is also a long way to go,” he said.

Ripa review

Law Society president Andrew Caplen has welcomed the government's promised review of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.

Reviewing Ripa

The Law Society is calling for:

  • A wide-ranging review of the legal and practical framework of surveillance in the UK;
  • Explicit legislative protection for legal professional privilege in legislation like Ripa;
  • The development of a future legislative framework that reflects public consensus as well as the expert views of relevant technologists, jurists, academics and civil liberties groups.

“We have been calling for a review of Ripa and associated legislation for some years [see box, left], however we are concerned that introducing emergency legislation does nothing to enhance the rule of law or address the fact that we are increasingly becoming a 'surveillance society'.

“The history of emergency legislation is not exemplary, with laws being used for purposes for which they were not intended. Today's news is particularly worrying, given the emergency legislation will go against a court judgement on human rights,” he said.

Caplen said there needs to be a public debate about how to strike the right balance between security, freedom and privacy.

“We need to simplify and clarify a complex and confusing legal framework and ensure that it protects human rights,” he said.

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