The latest reports on the government’s plan to monitor all electronics communications in the UK have triggered widespread opposition among privacy, digital rights and civil liberties campaingers.
The Sunday Times reported yesterday that legislation resulting from the Communications Capability Development programme, which would increase the ability of police and securtity authorities to access the details of communications between members of the public, will be introduced in the Queen’s speech next month.
The CCDP is seen as the successor to the previous government’s proposed Interception Modernisation Scheme. That plan was met with heavy political opposition from the current ruling parties.
However, the current government’s Strategic Defence and Security Review, published in 2010, reintroduced the prospect of increased monitoring of communications. "We will introduce a programme to preserve the ability of the security, intelligence and law enforcement agencies to obtain communication data and to intercept communications within the appropriate legal framework," it said.
In 2011, reports emerged of a new scheme entitled the Communications Capability Development programme. The Home Office says the programme "was set up to look at how we can preserve communications capabilities to protect the public in the future, as internet-based communications technology becomes increasingly popular".
The Home Office said in a statement today it is "vital" that state bodies such as police and security be able to access communications data, citing the need to "investigate serious crime and terrorism and to protect the public".
While state organisations will not be able to access the content of electronic communications, they will be able to see the "time, duration and dialling numbers of a phone call" under the proposed legislation, the Home Office said.
Big Brother Watch said the scheme "will see Britain adopt the same kind of surveillance as China and Iran". It also noted the absence of public debate on the topic. "It is remarkable that they wish to pry into everything we do online but seem intent on avoiding any public discussion," the group said.
Guy Herbert, found of the NO2ID group that campaigned against the former government’s ID card scheme, said the Home Office is attempting to feed us reheated leftovers from the authoritarian end of the Blair administration.
"It is not very far from a bug in every living room that can be turned on and turned off at official whim," Herbert wrote. "Whatever you are doing online, whoever you are in contact with, you will never know when you are being watched. And nobody else will either, because none of it will need a warrant."
However, Kathryn Wynn, senior associate at Pinsent Masons law firm, said that the new law would not affect what data that authorities can intercept, but the speed with which they can do it.
"ISPs and carriers are already required to give GCHQ access to information on request. What’s new is that this legislation means it could be demanded in real-time, rather than simply asking for historic data," she said. "Whether this is feasible or not depends on whether there is the technology available to deliver that information quickly – otherwise ISPs will struggle to comply through no fault of their own.
"Given the enormous number of transactions involved there’s also the danger that GCHQ will suffer from information overload, trying to sift through millions of calls, emails, texts and web visits to find what they are looking for in real-time, rather than analysing patterns in historic data instead."