Big tech accountability? Read how we got here in  The Closing of the Net 

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 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 Media and Academics – please cite as Monica Horten, 2015, David Cameron’s comms data top list  - with new content powers  in  14 January 2015 . Commercial users - please contact me.

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


Iptegrity in brief is the website of Dr Monica Horten. I’ve been analysing analysing digital policy since 2008. Way back then, I identified how issues around rights can influence Internet policy, and that has been a thread throughout all of my research. I hold a PhD in EU Communications Policy from the University of Westminster (2010), and a Post-graduate diploma in marketing.   I’ve served as an independent expert on the Council of Europe  Committee on Internet Freedoms, and was involved in a capacity building project in Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine. I am currently (from June 2022)  Policy Manager - Freedom of Expression, with the Open Rights Group. For more, see About Iptegrity is made available free of charge for  non-commercial use, Please link-back & attribute Monica Horten. Thank you for respecting this.

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