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Emma Carr: It's time to ditch the Snoopers' Charter

Carr EmmaEmma Carr is Deputy Director of Big Brother Watch.  Follow Emma on Twitter.

Under the Coalition we have seen some of the most tech-friendly policies in decades. However, the Communications Data Bill poses a substantial threat to the internet and subsequently, Britain’s social and economic future. With concerns about its economic effect on business, warnings from within Number 10, a haphazard consultation process and failures to scrutinise existing powers, it’s time for this bill to be ditched - as a group of leading academic experts urged yesterday.

The basic arguments behind the bill are now beginning to collapse. We were told it was essential to catch criminals using internet telephone services; it then emerged that British police currently receive more data from Skype than any other country in the world. More than the U.S, more than double Germany. This mirrors what we already knew about Google and Twitter – companies do cooperate with the police. And of course, since when have laws from Britain applied to companies based in the U.S?

Whether or not it is the same bill that Jacqui Smith proposed in 2008 (when she ruled out a central database), the wider impact could be catastrophic. The Coalition for a Digital Economy warned that it would make Britain a much less attractive place to start and grow a business, for fear of a Whitehall official one day arriving and saying you had to change the way your business works to provide the data the Home Office wants.

As well as a badly managed consultation process, there has been little in-depth scrutiny of existing legislation and powers. Research published by Big Brother Watch has shown how communications data is used across police forces, and makes clear that there are significant inconsistencies in the way that communications data is being treated. Furthermore, it emphasises how it is almost impossible to form a measured view of how the current system is operating, given the huge discrepancies in the way forces are recording how they use Communications Data.

As David Davis told the Telegraph: “It is frankly not good enough that the Government is considering introducing a snoopers' charter without even being able to tell us what they have used communications data for in the past – and indeed not even be able to tell us how many times they have done so.”

Even advisers at Number 10 are concerned about what the bill could potentially mean for the future. Ben Hammersley, an adviser to Number 10 on Tech City, has said that the bill could be turned from a force for good into something sinister in the future and has compared it to countries like North Korea and other draconian states. “As a society, it would be stupid to build the infrastructure that could be used to oppress us” he said.

This is more than a possibility – countries around the world would jump on the opportunity to force private companies to monitor their customers, creating data they do not need purely for the benefit of the state. The Home Office paying companies to do this here would give legitimacy to regimes around the world. Crossing this line will have serious repercussions internationally.

The internet does change the way that the police work, of course. But to claim less data is available now than in previous years and that the police cannot get data from the likes of Skype is clearly false. There is more data than ever, and the challenge is ensuring the police have the skills and training to make best use of it. This is exactly the point that Bernard Hogan-Howe made when he was asked what the biggest challenge the police faced: police technology, he said, “is more green-screen than it is iPad, I am afraid, and it does not seem to catch criminals.”

The question is whether we pass a piece of ill-thought out legislation and divert £2bn (plus the inevitable overspend) from front line policing to another Whitehall IT project, or we make sure that Britain has the best trained, best resourced cyber cops in the world. 


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