Privacy groups back calls for "Snooper's Charter" rethink

Big Brother eye

Privacy campaigners have thrown their weight behind the conclusions of a new Joint Committee report into the controversial Communications Data Bill, which claims the proposals need to be "significantly amended."

Dubbed the "Snooper's Charter", the aim of the Bill is to provide law enforcement agencies, such as GCHQ, with access to communications data to help detect criminal activity.

The committee has exposed weak evidence, misleading statements and fanciful figures.

A draft version of the Bill was published in June, and since then its contents has been picked over by a 12-strong Joint Committee, who released a report earlier today calling for the Bill to be overhauled.

The group has taken issue with the Bill's first clause, which would give the Home Secretary powers to order any kind of communications data including emails and internet history to be retained by service providers.

"The Joint Committee believes that if Clause narrowed, and safeguards are put in place to ensure any new powers are not abused, a new Bill could be introduced," said the group in a statement.

"It would both allow the security services, law enforcement agencies and a few other public authorities access to the data they need to protect and serve UK citizens without trampling on [their] privacy...This is something the current draft Bill does not achieve."

The committee also demands the range of public bodies authorised to access communications data be narrowed, and that the Government seeks further advice on the Bill's content before it is pushed through.

Other recommendations made by the committee include making the misuse of communications data a specific offence, and that a thorough cost analysis around the Bill's implementation be carried out.

Lord Blencathra, chair of the Joint Committee, said there is clearly a case for the legislation, but it needs to strike a better balance between the needs of law enforcement agencies and the right to privacy.

"The breadth of the draft Bill as it stands appears to be overkill and is much wider than the specific needs identified by the law enforcement agencies," said Blencartha.

"We urge the Government to reconsider its zeal to future-proof legislation and concentrate on getting the immediate necessities right."

Industry approval

The Joint Committee's feedback has been broadly welcomed by industry watchers and privacy campaigners.

Although some claim its findings expand little on the concerns tech experts and civil rights groups have previously raised about the proposed legislation.

Alexander Hanff, managing director of campaign group Think Privacy, described the Bill as a "legislative red herring" that is unlikely to improve the crime fighting abilities of enforcement bodies.

"Politicians need to understand that any law drafted to gather intelligence from online communications is easily circumnavigated through the use of encryption," he told IT Pro.

"Criminals, terrorists and paedophiles already know this and use not just encryption but other ways of making their communications untraceable, so introducing interception laws is the equivalent of trying to use a shovel to stop an avalanche," he said.

Hanff claimed the likely beneficiaries of this Bill will be the makers of surveillance technology.

"[They] stand to generate billions in revenue from these laws and their access to Whitehall...[and we must be protected] from further attempts to introduce such draconic legislation in future," he added.

Caroline Donnelly is the news and analysis editor of IT Pro and its sister site Cloud Pro, and covers general news, as well as the storage, security, public sector, cloud and Microsoft beats. Caroline has been a member of the IT Pro/Cloud Pro team since March 2012, and has previously worked as a reporter at several B2B publications, including UK channel magazine CRN, and as features writer for local weekly newspaper, The Slough and Windsor Observer. She studied Medical Biochemistry at the University of Leicester and completed a Postgraduate Diploma in Magazine Journalism at PMA Training in 2006.