Three of the UK’s law enforcement chiefs have come out in support of a revival of the so-called "snoopers’ charter" to monitor electronic communications.
The draft Communications Data Bill was shelved under the previous parliament after it was blocked by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition government.
Civil liberties groups were also critical of the draft legislation, which is aimed at making it easier for authorities to spy on electronic communications.
Before it was shelved, the bill required internet and other service providers to retain records of all communications for 12 months, including emails, web phone calls and use of social media.
Home secretary Theresa May has indicated that the newly formed Conservative government will seek to reintroduce the bill, which has the support of the National Crime Agency, Met Police and City of London Police.
“To prevent terror attacks or serious offences we need to maintain surveillance capacity online,” said Bernard Hogan-Howe, head of London's Metropolitan Police Service.
Hogan-Howe said the dark web is a facilitator for serious and organised crime, and for trading criminal goods using virtual currencies.
Endorsing the government’s planned legislation on electronic communications, he said: “This is about maintaining and protecting our capabilities and keeping pace with technology.
“But also it is about the responsibility of communications service providers to help law enforcement agencies keep people safe,” he added.
Hogan-Howe said that “post Snowden” there is a growing appetite to keep information secure, resulting in ever-increasing levels of encryption, which is a “double-edged sword”.
“It is good to protect the innocent but not those who seek to do harm, out of reach and out of sight, which is why we support proposals on new legislation in this very important area,” he said.
On the verge of losing vital ground
City of London Police commissioner Adrian Leppard said the government has a role to play in providing legislation to enable a different way of working to ensure that encryption does not continue to be the “big problem” for law enforcement.
“Our powers in digital communication in particular are vitally important to protect society, and we are on the verge of losing vital ground if the government does not take action,” he said.
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Leppard said everyone in the police service understands the concerns the public has about the powers of the state, but as a law enforcement officer it was his duty to state the encryption is a problem operationally.
“Changing the law is a debate for society and for politicians to decide, but my job is to say that this is a real problem. This is not sabre rattling of law enforcement officers; this is a cutting-edge problem that is at a watershed moment. We must take action,” he said.
Hogan-Howe said that despite what is said in the media, he believes there is still a trust in UK law enforcement agencies that they are there to keep people safe.
“But it is difficult to have a debate on this issue because some things have to remain secret. We dance around some of the details because we do not want to share [with adversaries] how little or how much we can do and how we do it,” he said.
Hogan-Howe said another key point in this debate is that sometimes the intrusions into privacy by commerce are far greater than will ever be experienced from the state.
“The intrusion by companies like Google and others into people’s lives for a commercial benefit is remarkable,” he said.
Hogan-Howe said UK law enforcement officers are not allowed to get the location data of anyone calling to report a crime, but taxi companies will immediately know the location of anyone using a mobile app to book their services.
“There needs to be a level of maturity in this debate, but post Snowden there have been times when the debate has become a little immature,” he said.
Officers need to speak up
National Crime Agency director general Keith Bristow said law enforcement officers do not have a political role, but need to speak up and set up the reality of the situation for the public.
He said we would not accept in the physical world that police could not enter a place where a child is potentially being abused, but the challenge in the digital world is that things like encryption are preventing law enforcement from entering such places because they do not have the data they need.
There is work we can do to better explain how we need to operate in the new world, and I think we need to communicate directly with the public to explain this very clearly and set out choices
Keith Bristow, National Crime Agency
“The important thing [for us to do] is not to lobby, but to speak up, set it out, and it is up to the public to decide what we should be able to do,” said Bristow.
“There is work we can do to better explain how we need to operate in the new world, and I think we need to communicate directly with the public to explain this very clearly and set out choices.”
To ensure that the legislation adapts to meet changes in the environment and satisfies public confidence, he said the UK needs a “rigorous” public debate.
Bristow said the way law enforcement officers use interception, surveillance and data is “quite rightly” examined regularly and in detail by various commissioners.
“We are quite properly scrutinised very strongly, and internal scrutiny is hugely important. None of us want a state where the level of intrusion is disproportionate to what we are trying to achieve,” he said.
Hogan-Howe said the fact of the matter is that law enforcement organisations do not have the resources and that it is logistically impossible to conduct the level of intrusion that some people fear.
“The reason we keep this capability for the most serious cases is that they are relatively rare and deserve the most intrusion,” he said.
Leppard said there is probably no country in the world that has greater oversight of the surveillance powers of police than the UK.
“We could not ask for more scrutiny. We are very much held to account. The powers we have are not abused. It is a limited resource that is targeted and very focused,” he said.
However, Leppard said the new digital world demands new powers that law enforcement agencies in the UK currently do not have. “We need those powers,” he said.