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25th Oct 2021

UK government under fire over 'Big Brother' web surveillance plans

  • The UK Conservative-led government has come under fire for plans to increase web surveillance by the police. (Photo: UK Ministry of Defence)

The UK’s Conservative-led coalition government has come under attack over plans to introduce legislation extending the powers of the police and security services to monitor personal emails and the use of social media by individuals.

The government's plans, which would require internet service providers to gather the information which would then be surveyed by government intelligence services, were first revealed on Sunday (1 April).

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The government insisted that the legislation, which is expected to be included in the Queen’s speech on 9 May, would only allow data with the details of users’ email, mobile phone calls and web searches to be accessible, excluding content.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday (3 April) Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg promised that the most contentious parts of the bill would be published in draft form for consultation by the House of Commons

While the opposition Labour party is yet to take a formal position, back-bench MPs from the governing Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties have already expressed their opposition.

A group of 17 Liberal Democrat called on the government to ensure that "the public get a chance to see and debate the details of any proposals to extend state surveillance" adding that MPs should "not just being presented with a Home Office fait accompli."

David Davis, a Conservative MP who ran against David Cameron for the Tory party leadership in 2005, has led the Tory back-bench campaign against the proposals. Davis, who stood down as shadow Home Affairs secretary, when he triggered a by-election calling for a mandate from his constituency to oppose the introduction of ID cards, said of proposal’s scope that “it is not focusing on terrorists or on criminals, it is absolutely everybody.”

The coalition agreement between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties had included a pledge to end unnecessary data retention.

The EU data retention directive, which came into force in 2009, currently requires internet service providers to keep this data, including the time, sender and recipient and geographical location, for between six months and two years. During this time the police and security agencies can request access to details, with permission to access the information granted only by a court.

Plans by the previous Labour government to set up a national database to track all communications by phone, text, email and social media were ditched in 2009, in the face of opposition from the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties.

Concerns were also raised by internet service providers about the cost and feasibility of the plan.

A statement by the UK Home Office said: “It is vital that police and security services are able to obtain communications data in certain circumstances to investigate serious crime and terrorism and to protect the public.”

Christopher Graham, the UK information commissioner, has also insisted that the government carry out an impact assessment on individuals’ data privacy. Graham, who last week offered qualified support for the proposed revision of the EU data protection directive at a meeting of the European Parliament’s Privacy Platform, had previously spelt out his opposition to extending data retention in an internal briefing paper 18 months ago.

It is unclear whether the UK’s plans will fall foul of the proposals by the European Commission to revise the EU’s data privacy framework. Speaking last week at the Privacy platform meeting, Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding, who presented the draft directive and regulation, said that although public authorities would be bound by the rules, the national security was more of an issue for national governments.

The Commission and MEPs in the European Parliament are expected to increase the level of legal harmonisation on data protection across the member states.

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