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UK Prime Minister David Cameron has said he will put communications data at the top of his list for new laws after the May 7 general election. Assuming he is re-elected, he wants to extend the range of data that would be legally accessible to the police and intelligence services, on a scale thus far unprecedented. His proposals, justified on the basis of an increased terror threat, will also up the ante in terms of the technology companies that will be obligated to comply. The concern is that Mr Cameron's implied multi-dimensional data retention requirement will also create an apparatus that, without sufficient safeguards and in the wrong hands, will result in a vastly disproportionate, over-arching and unacceptable violation of personal privacy.

They kind of powers that he seems to be suggesting go much further than the metadata relating to phone calls and emails. This - once thought to be a disproportionate and over-the-top response - now looks to be a relative drop in the pond compared with what could be on the agenda after May 7th.

In a speech reported by the BBC, Mr Cameron has specifically mentioned 'content':

The powers that I believe we need whether on communications data or on the content of communications,

Without specifics, we don't know whether the proposal is just to more easily enable interception, or if it means to scoop up and keep every piece of content from our communications. The latter would be the equivalent of asking the post office to open every envelope and photocopy what's inside before re-sealing and forwarding it. Or, like having a government spy in the knicker drawer.

This may sound like an exaggeration, but given the available technology, I don't think it is. All of that data, from people's everyday correspondence to their most intimate secrets, would be stored in case of need. Hence, it would be a shocking intrusion on the privacy of the mass of the population who are not terrorists and have done nothing wrong. Surely, if it were ever permitted, such a data store would require the most stringent safeguards.

If David Cameron's new law is intended to enable easier forms of interception, then we would still have to ask what safeguards are put around the process to ensure that innocent people are not snooped on. Given the UK government's track record under both Labour and the Coalition, we should distrust any re-assurances until the text of legislation is before Parliament.

David Cameron also talked about 'safe spaces' on the Internet:

I will ensure it is a comprehensive piece of legislation to make sure we do not allow terrorists a safe space to speak to each other.

The notion of 'safe spaces' is now becoming the subject of much conjecture. One interpretation is that it concerns encrypted data. It may well do. Historically, the intelligence services have moaned about encrypted transmissions that could not be intercepted. It's a long-forgotten fact that the spy agencies complained when the GSM mobile phone system was first implemented, and obligated the mobile phone manufacturers made the necessary changes to enable interception. In those days, there was no public awareness, nor any discussion.

It's also the case that in the current evolution of the Internet, there's a lot of data in places where the intelligence services cannot reach. Those may be companies based abroad. That could also be an interpretation.

It's clear that there's been some kind of regulatory capture on the part of the intelligence services. David Cameron states that they need new 'powers'. This is also language to watch. They almost certainly don't need new powers. They have the powers they need to get the data and intercept communications, in those cases where someone is under suspicion. What they asking for is a whole new ocean of personal data to be kept on a 'just in case' basis.

In the EU context, Mr Cameron's proposals would throw open the debate on data retention dramatically after the European Court of Justice struck down the Data Retention Directive. Whilst Britain is a member of the EU, it will have to ensure that any new law on storing data and intercepting content, complies with EU law - and that includes the European Convention on Human rights, Articles 8 and 10 on privacy and freedom of expression.

David Cameron walked on the Paris 'je suis Charlie' march. Freedom of expression is indeed about the right to offend, and the right to hold differing opinions. It's also about being able to speak without fear of being intercepted by the State. The intelligence services should not be above the law, and they have to be governed by it. Any violation of that right by the State must be necessary and proportionate and carefully balanced against other rights. These are values we should defend. The kind of apparatus that could be created in the worst case scenario implied by Mr Cameron's proposal would create a climate of fear online, and that would be a false balance, seriously undermining public trust.

Read more:

BBC David Cameron says new online data laws needed

The Guardian David Cameron is living in cloud cuckoo land over encrypted messaging apps ban

The Financial Times David Cameron calls for UK to plan response to Paris-style attack

Internet Service Providers Association ISPA calls for a better approach on surveillance powers

I used other sources from BBC Radio 4.

This is an original article from Iptegrity.com and reflects research that I have carried out. If you refer to it or to its content, please cite my name as the author, and provide a link back to iptegrity.com. Media and Academics - please cite as Monica Horten, 2015, David Cameron's comms data top list - with new content powers in Iptegrity.com 14 January 2015 . Commercial users - please contact me.

Tags: communications data, encryption, privacy, rights, metadata, Internet, policy, free speech,


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About Iptegrity

Iptegrity.com is the website of Dr Monica Horten. I am an  independent policy advisor, with expertise in online safety, technology and human rights. I am a published author, and post-doctoral scholar. I hold a PhD from the University of Westminster, and a DipM from the Chartered Institute of Marketing. I cover the UK and EU. I'm a former tech journalist, and an experienced panelist and Chair. My media credits include the BBC, iNews, Times, Guardian and Politico.

Iptegrity.com is made available free of charge for non-commercial use. Please link back and attribute Dr Monica Horten.  Contact me to use any of my content for commercial purposes.