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Views sought on Government's 'communications data' surveillance plans

A Parliamentary committee is seeking views on Government plans to expand existing laws on communications surveillance.

The Joint Committee of MPs and Peers has launched a 'call for evidence' on the Government's draft Communications Data Bill. The committee is responsible for scrutinising the proposed new laws.

Expanded surveillance capabilities had been called for by police and intelligence agencies which have complained that existing laws providing powers of surveillance were insufficient to meet criminals' ever-advancing use of technology. However the proposals have been dubbed a 'snoopers' charter' by civil liberty campaigners and have also drawn criticism from the Internet Service Providers Association (ISPA).

“You only need to have caught sight of the newspapers recently to realise that this is a controversial Bill which will affect each and every one of us in some way," Lord Blencathra, committee chairman, said in a statement.

"We all email, use websites and mobile phones and this Committee wants to ensure that the draft Bill will ensure a sufficient balance between an individuals’ privacy and national security. We intend very thoroughly to examine the Government’s proposals and hope to hear from interested bodies and organisations about exactly how the changes in technology and the way we use it should be reflected in legislation about access to communication data,” he said.

Views are sought on how the Government's plans "fit within the wider landscape on intrusion into individuals’ privacy" and on which public authorities should be able to access communications data. Stakeholders are also asked whether plans for communications data to be retained for a year is appropriate and whether technology is sufficiently developed to ensure the information is captured reliably, stored safely and kept separate from the content of communications. The committee would also like to know whether the individuals or organisations could circumvent the measures within the proposed new regime.

The call for evidence is open until 23 August.

Last month the Government published a draft Communications Data Bill which, if enacted, would reform the type of information that 'communications data' refers to and establish a new regime for the surveillance of that data.

Under the Bill the Home Secretary could issue an order forcing any business that transmits "communications by any means involving the use of electrical or electro-magnetic energy" to store communications data in the form of "traffic data, use data or subscriber data" relevant to communications sent over their networks, including by email or the internet generally for up to a year. The data does not include the content of those communications.

Business caught by the proposed legislation must disclose information "without undue delay" to law enforcement bodies and other listed public authorities that ask for it. Those bodies can only request the information if it is to be used for a "permitted purpose" and if "designated senior officers" at those bodies believe it is "necessary to obtain the data" and that the action is "proportionate to what is sought to be achieved."

The 'permitted purposes' include where it is in the interests of national security, where the purpose is for the prevention or detection of crime, to prevent disorder and where it is in the interests of the economic well-being of the United Kingdom or in the interests of public safety, among others.

'Subscriber data' includes information such as the names and addresses of individual users of communication services. 'Use data' relates to how those individuals have utilised those services and may include itemised phone call records or connections to internet services, the duration of calls and the amount of data they have downloaded online. 'Traffic data' is information associated to communications, such as the physical location of mobile devices and the destination of received communications that are transmitted.

The Bill contains a number of "safeguards", including requirements that collected communications data is deleted after a year in storage.

Law enforcement bodies currently have the power to access historic communications data held by telecoms firms under the EU's Data Retention Directive. Law enforcement bodies in the UK also already have the power to intercept individuals' communications in certain circumstances and can order telecoms providers to hand over communications data to enable them to do that.

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