Investigatory Powers Bill to update UK communications data laws

Out-Law News | 28 May 2015 | 6:16 pm | 2 min. read

The government will draft new laws to support UK intelligence agencies' ability to gather information about communications to combat terrorism and other serious crimes, it has confirmed.

The government's plans to create a new Investigatory Powers Bill were contained in the Queen's speech in the UK parliament on Wednesday. The new law will modernise the law relating to 'communications data', it said.

Communications data is information about phone and internet communications, such as the source of a communication, its destination, date, time, duration and type. It does not relate to the content of communications.

In January UK prime minister David Cameron pledged to give UK law enforcement and intelligence gathering agencies "comprehensive" new powers to monitor communications and access data associated with those communications if still prime minister after the UK general election.

The Investigatory Powers Bill will be aimed at ensuring law enforcement bodies have the "tools" necessary to keep the public safe and to plug gaps in their existing intelligence gathering capabilities, the government said. The gaps in capability that currently exist, it said, are "severely degrading the ability of law enforcement and intelligence agencies ability to combat terrorism and other serious crime".

The government promised that "appropriate oversight and safeguard arrangements" will be provided for in the Bill.

The new Bill will have a number of benefits, the government said, including "better equipping law enforcement and intelligence agencies to meet their key operational requirements, and addressing the gap in these agencies’ ability to build intelligence and evidence where subjects of interest, suspects and vulnerable people have communicated online".

Earlier this year the UK parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) said that "piecemeal" and "unnecessarily complicated" rules governing communications surveillance activities in the UK have led to a "lack of transparency" over whether UK intelligence and security agencies are operating within the law.  Civil liberties groups have previously expressed concern about whether UK intelligence gathering activities respect individuals' right to privacy.

The Open Rights Group previously called on the government to overhaul existing laws on intelligence gathering and implement new ones that permit the UK's security services and law enforcement agencies to engage only in "targeted" as opposed to "mass" surveillance.

The UK government previously pulled back from plans to introduce a new Communications Data Bill following criticisms from technology companies and privacy campaigners.

Renate Samson, chief executive of Big Brother Watch, said it remains to be seen whether the change in the Bill's title is matched by "radical" changes to its content.

"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," Samson said. "We are also yet to see any concrete evidence that access to communications data has and indeed 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."