Woolwich and Communications Data

commons day

Deputy Director Emma Carr has contributed this piece to Index on Censorship’s website.

John Reid and others’ attempt to make a political argument about “essential” legislation just hours after the brutal murder in Woolwich this week was remarkable, given how little was known at the time and the fact the victim’s family had not even been informed of his death.

Yes, it is right to examine how our security services could have been aided to prevent the horrific scenes we saw in Woolwich this week, but to jump to conclusions and use the politics of fear to promote an agenda before the any detail is available is simply wrong.

Indeed, as the facts have begun to emerge, it seems the answer may look very different to the draft Communications Data bill.

If, as is reported to be the case, these two individuals were known to the security services — as was also the case for several of those involved in the 7/7 attack — then plainly it seems strange to suggest a policy that would collect data on every member of the public, massively increasing the volume of data the security services have to sift through. We should be asking what resources the security services need to expand their knowledge of people ‘on the radar’.

The choice isn’t between a communications data bill or nothing. Far from it. Indeed, as details of this horrific attack become clear, it is looking more likely that the “Snooper’s Charter” would not have prevented. If it is a case of two individuals, working together but not as part of a wider organisation, then internet records may not be a critical factor. Of course, their personal devices — laptops, mobiles and other technology — will have a huge amount of information on them, far more than the bill would have created.

Equally, it’s worth noting the draft Communications Data Bill prohibited the storing or viewing of the content of communications. When someone is considered a significant enough threat for security services to prohibit them leaving the country, frankly I would hope the content of their messages is being read. The powers currently exist to order the retention of data on an individual, but that has a 30 day time limit. This seems unduly restrictive on the police, and should be extended.

Even if other powers were used to intercept messages, British courts still block the use of intercept evidence in court, an handicap not seen in the US or countless other countries.

The nature of terrorism has changed significantly over the past decade. Low-tech equipment and so-called “lone wolf” attackers are clearly now a real threat. The Communications Data Bill was a concept formed in the middle of the last decade, and is rapidly looking both disproportionate and out of date.

As announced in the Queen’s speech, the Government is already working on ensuring that the police can identify who is using a certain internet IP address to enable them to trace threats. It should be possible to do this in a way that supports the police, as well as protecting privacy, and it is right the Government is focusing on this important step.

But to use this tragedy as a springboard for recording the details of every British citizen’s emails, web browsing and social media messages is both a failure to learn the lessons of recent incidents and a continuing failure to recognise that surveillance of an entire population is both an unacceptable intrusion on our freedoms and a chilling effect on free expression for anyone communicating in, or with, the UK. It also risks diverting resources away from the security services at a time when they are more in need of targeted surveillance than ever before.