Privacy, security, data protection and civil liberties in the Queen’s Speech

This morning the Queen outlined the Government’s plans for the next two years. The full text is available online here.

A number of proposals relevant to privacy, security, data protection and the freedom of the internet were included. These fall under a number of headings.

  1. Digital Charter
  2. Data Protection
  3. Countering Extremism
  4. Counter Terrorism

Arguably all of these proposals are in part inextricably linked to one another.

The Digital Charter is defined as the Government wanting to create a “framework which balances users’ and businesses‘ freedom and security online”.  They go on to assert that they support “a free and open internet” but that any “freedom must be balanced with protections”.

These proposals, on the surface, will seem to many to be both sensible and reassuring, but what will a Digital Charter really entail and what is really meant when they say our freedom must be balanced with protections?

We will monitor the Digital Charter closely to ensure that whatever solutions are proposed do not impinge unnecessarily on our privacy or civil liberties.

It will come as no surprise that we welcome the Data Protection Bill and support the intention to write the General Data Protection Regulation into our national law.

Anything which will “strengthen rights and empower individuals to have more control over their personal data” is a positive, but of course we say that with caution.

The Government have a poor track record recently on understanding what “control over personal data” means in practice.  Let’s not forget Part 5 of the Digital Economy Bill which made a total hash of data sharing with government, and led to citizens having absolutely no control over their data once they hand it over to government officials.  If this practice of keeping citizens at arms-length from their data continues we will find ourselves at odds with the movement in Europe towards improved data protection and citizens’ data rights. Don’t forget the safer our personal data is, the safer we are.

The intention to establish a statutory commission for countering extremism brings a whole host of concerns.  Defining “extremism” is not as straight forward as the Government seem to think.  Indeed they themselves have admitted that it is not clear cut.   We are extremely concerned by the intention to establish a commission and will be raising concern with it via our work with the Defend Free Speech coalition.  You can read more about that here.

The intention for another counter-terrorism review in order to “ensure that the police and security services have all the powers they need” is already facing challenge from the new Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation Max Hill who has made clear since taking the role that “we do have the appropriate laws in place, and that essentially the police and security services, and those whose job it is to keep us safe, do have the powers at their disposal.” We support this view, particularly following the passing of the all-encompassing Investigatory Powers Act.

The intention to establish “no safe spaces on the internet for terrorists” will undoubtedly bring the issue of encryption into the spotlight. How this will marry with creating a safe internet for all and protecting national infrastructure is unclear.

It will pose a serious challenge for the Government, because maintaining the security of the critical national infrastructure another key plan of the Government will require strong and unbreakable encryption.

Though it is not mentioned anywhere in the Queen’s Speech documents, cybersecurity is going to become increasingly urgent and with it the need for encryption will be absolutely critical, which makes the counter terrorism plans to ensure there are “no safe spaces on the internet for terrorists” decidedly problematic.

Make no mistake, if we are to protect the country and all its citizens from cyberattacks; such as that which recently took out the NHS, encryption is necessary.  Any attempts to weaken encryption  or permit backdoors to be established  under the guise of protecting the country from terrorists, will simply leave us wide open to exploitation from hackers, rogue nation states or those who wish to cause mass scale harm online.

All of these proposals could have a profound impact on the wellbeing and security of all citizens on and offline.  As going online is less a choice and more a necessary process of living, the Government are going to have to change the way they engage with us on these critical issues. Discussion about the complexities of security on and offline will have to be more honest.  Treating these issues as zero sum games cannot go on.  Attempting to pull the wool over our eyes will do more harm than good.

We shall follow all these proposals closely and continue to challenge anything which we believe will impact UK citizens’ civil liberties, privacy or online security.