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Queen’s Speech sets out plans for new snoopers' charter

The Queen’s Speech confirmed that the government will introduce legislation to modernise the law on communications data

As expected, the government has set out plans to make it easier for security and police services to spy on electronic communications in the Queen’s Speech.

In 2013, the controversial Communications Data Bill, dubbed the “snoopers' charter", was dropped from the Queen’s Speech at the last minute because of opposition from the Liberal Democrats.

Civil liberties groups were also critical of the draft legislation, which was aimed at making it easier for authorities to spy on emails, phone calls and internet activity.

But hours after the Conservatives won a majority in the 2015 general election, home secretary Theresa May indicated that the party would reintroduce legislation to monitor electronic communications.

The Queen’s Speech confirmed that the government will introduce new legislation to modernise the law on communications data, this time to be known as the Investigatory Powers Bill.

Like the shelved Communications Data Bill, the new legislation will be aimed at giving police and intelligence agencies the power to monitor online communications.  

The government argues that these powers are necessary to address “ongoing capability gaps” in combating terrorism and other serious crime by building intelligence and evidence about suspects.

The legislation will allow intelligence agencies and law enforcement to target online communications of terrorists, paedophiles and other serious criminals.

However, the government claims the new legislation will provide “appropriate oversight” and safeguards.

“This will respond to issues raised in the independent review by the Independent Reviewer of Counter-Terrorism legislation, which is due to be published shortly,” the government said.

Read more about the Draft Communications Data Bill

The proposed legislation covers all investigatory powers including communications data, where the government has long maintained that the gap in capabilities are putting lives at risk, it added.

The legislation will also be aimed at enabling the continuation of the targeting of terrorist communications and other capabilities, but it is not yet clear if the new bill will include the controversial requirement that internet and other service providers must retain records of all communications for 12 months, including emails, web phone calls and use of social media.

Big Brother Watch chief executive Renate Samson said it will be interesting to see whether the content of the new bill has radically changed from the bill that was shelved.

“We have yet to see real evidence that there is a gap in the capability of law enforcement or the agencies’ ability to gain access to our communications data,” she said in a statement.

Samson said the government has yet to produce any concrete evidence that access to communications data will make the country safer.

“The only evidence we have is of numerous failures to make effective use of the data already available. Any new draft legislation must acknowledge that the bigger the haystacks the harder it will be to find the needles,” she said.

UK law enforcement support 

Three of the UK’s law enforcement chiefs recently come out in support of a revival of legislation aimed at monitoring electronic communications.

“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.

“We argue that there should be no dark, ungoverned spaces on the internet,” he told a briefing hosted by the security and resilience network of the business membership organisation London First.

Hogan-Howe’s comments were echoed by City of London Police commissioner Adrian Leppard and National Crime Agency director general Keith Bristow.

It remains to be seen if the planned Investigatory Powers Bill will attempt to tackle the thorny issue of encryption of online communication services.

Law enforcement agencies in the UK, elsewhere in Europe and the US have been increasingly vocal in recent months about their opposition to the encryption of online communication channels.

US Department of Homeland Security head Jeh Johnson, FBI director James Comey, former European Cyber Crime Centre head Troels Oerting, GCHQ director Robert Hannigan and Europol director Rob Wainwright have all opposed ubiquitous encryption. 

In response to concerns about the encryption of communication channels, UK prime minister David Cameron has suggested building in back doors to allow authorities access.

In January 2015, Cameron indicated he would consider banning communication channels that cannot be read by the security services, even if they have a warrant.

At the time, Open Rights Group called on the prime minister to provide more details about his plans to give the security services the legal powers to break encrypted communications.

“Cameron’s plans appear dangerous, ill-thought out and scary,” said Open Rights Group executive director Jim Killock.

Security industry representatives have also expressed concerns that any back doors put in for security will be open to abuse by hackers, cyber criminals, nation states and terror groups.

Read more on Privacy and data protection

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