Experts say drop web snooping plans

Today’s Times newspaper leads with an important development on the Communications Data Bill.

A group of ten leading academics and computer science experts have added their voices to the growing chorus of objection over the bill, far beyond the scope of merely tinkering with the drafted legislation.

This follows the news that the Home Office faces legal action as it tries to keep secret a key part of the snooping plan, the so-called ‘request filter’ – or as we call it, the search engine for our web activity.

The full text of the damning letter is below in full.


Dear Prime Minister,
One year ago, we learned that the Home Secretary intended to resurrect plans to monitor
every British person’s Internet activity. One year on, the plans remain as naïve and
technically dangerous as when they were floated by the last Government.
Parliament does not have a good track record in legislating for the Internet. The most recent
foray, the Digital Economy Act, has proven both unworkable and unhelpful, while more
feasible alternatives were ignored and taxpayers’ money was poured into a technically inept
political totem.

It seems that government has not learned the lessons of that ill-fated legislation and is intent
on trying to foist onto the Internet a surveillance system designed for landline telephones.
Many of the technical experts consulted are people that will profit from the plans, whether
they succeed or fail. Outside independent experts have not been meaningfully involved in
any way. There is little evidence justifying existing EU requirements for Internet Service
Providers (ISPs) to retain records about use of their own services, according to studies by
the Max Planck Institute, Germany’s Federal Criminal Police Office, and the Dutch Erasmus
Consumer confidence in network security is an essential foundation of the digital economy
and the trend is towards encrypted communications to large websites. The Communications
Data Bill cannot do anything effective about this shift. The provisions to force ISPs to monitor
how customers use third party services will be expensive, will hinder innovation and will
undermine the privacy of citizens visiting specialist websites (such as advice on pregnancy,
HIV and mental health) without giving the police any new effective tools to monitor criminals
who chat via social media.  The bill combines high financial and privacy costs with low
benefits for real police work. The money would be better spent on more police officers, on
improving our police forces’ computer forensic capabilities, and on international collaboration
to tackle cybercrime, than on yet another IT project that already shows the classic symptoms
of becoming a failure.
While putting the UK’s internet-based business community at a significant competitive
disadvantage, the Bill will be copied by less-democratic regimes around the world,
undermining decades of British foreign policy.

We the undersigned urge the Government to abandon the Communications Data Bill and to
work with the technical community and the police to meet the real challenges of law
enforcement in a connected world, rather than imposing a policy that poses a significant risk
the UK’s economic and political interests.