Backlash grows over GCHQ monitoring

GCHQ monitoring condemned by MPs

Plans for a major expansion of the UK Government’s powers to monitor the email exchanges and website visits of every person in the UK are being condemned by MPs.

Under legislation expected in next month's Queen's Speech, internet companies will be instructed to install hardware enabling the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) to examine "on demand" any phone call made, text message and email sent, and website accessed, in "real time" without a warrant.

A previous attempt to introduce a similar law was abandoned by the former Labour government in 2006 in the face of fierce opposition from the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats as well as civil liberties groups.

Senior MPs from both coalition parties have lined up to condemn the move by ministers to revive the plan, denouncing it as an unnecessary extension of the state's powers to "snoop" on its citizens.

The Home Office argued that the measure was "vital" to combat terrorism and organised crime and stressed a warrant would be needed in order to access the content of the communications they were monitoring.

However that did little to allay the concerns of critics who said the authorities would still be able to trace who people were in contact with and how often and for how long they were communicating.

"It is not focusing on terrorists or on criminals. It is absolutely everybody. Historically governments have been kept out of our private lives," said Conservative former shadow home secretary David Davis.

"Our freedom and privacy has been protected by using the courts by saying 'If you want to intercept, if you want to look at something, fine, if it is a terrorist or a criminal go and ask a magistrate and you'll get your approval'. You shouldn't go beyond that in a decent, civilised society but that is what is being proposed.

"They don't need this law to protect us. This is an unnecessary extension of the ability of the state to snoop on ordinary innocent people in vast numbers. Frankly, they shouldn't have that power."

Mark Field, a Conservative member of the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee, which oversees the work of the intelligence agencies, said he believed that opposition had grown since the last attempt to legislate.

"I would imagine that if anything the sentiment has become even stronger among MPs across the House that they would be extremely concerned if this were to see the light of day in legislation in this entirely unvarnished way," he told BBC Radio 5 Live's Pienaar's Politics.

"I think the notion of having a warrant and having this done through an open and transparent legal process is one that has worked well and I hope that it will work well in the future."

The senior Lib Dem MP Malcolm Bruce warned that the system could be wide open to abuse.

"The problem we have had in the past is this information has been leaked, lost, stolen. I think there would be very, very real concerns that it could be open to all kinds of abuse," he told Pienaar's Politics.

"We have had a situation where police have been selling information to the media. I think we are in a very, very dangerous situation if too much information is being passed around unnecessarily."

Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti warned that it would undermine the coalition's commitment to human rights if it went ahead with the plan.

"There is an element of whoever you vote for the empire strikes back," she told Sky News's Murnaghan programme.

"This is more ambitious than anything that has been done before. The coalition bound itself together in the language of civil liberties. Do they still mean it?"

The Home Office, however, said it was essential that the police and security services were able to access communications data and that ministers would be bringing forward legislation "as soon as parliamentary time allows".

"It is vital that police and security services are able to obtain communications data in certain circumstances to investigate serious crime and terrorism and to protect the public. We need to take action to maintain the continued availability of communications data as technology changes," a spokesman said.

"Communications data includes time, duration and dialling numbers of a phone call, or an email address. It does not include the content of any phone call or email and it is not the intention of Government to make changes to the existing legal basis for the interception of communications."

Nick Pickles, director of the Big Brother Watch campaign group, said: "No amount of scare-mongering can hide the fact that this policy is being condemned by MPs in all political parties.

"The Government has offered no justification for what is unprecedented intrusion into our lives, nor explained why promises made about civil liberties are being casually junked.

"The silence from Home Office ministers has been deafening. It is remarkable that they wish to pry into everything we do online but seem intent on avoiding any public discussion."

The Government's former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation Lord Carlile said he expected Parliament to demand strict safeguards on any new powers but he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme the proposals were about updating existing regulations.

He said: "There is nothing new about this. The previous government intended to take similar steps and they were heavily criticised by the coalition parties.

"But having come into government, the coalition parties have realised this kind of material has potential for saving lives, preventing serious crime and helping people to avoid becoming victims of serious crime.

"Parliament will apply the most anxious scrutiny to any proposed legislation of this kind.

"We are talking about the updating of existing practices.

"When I was independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, I looked at this issue for the last government and I suggested there should be an independent board which scrutinised all this activity and ensured it was not simply the police or the security services that makes these decisions but they were properly, independently monitored - and that is what I expect Parliament to demand.

"There is actually very little, if any, evidence known to me to show current powers have been used improperly.

"I agree we do need to ensure there is proper independent scrutiny, maybe of a much more substantial kind than exists at the moment to ensure these powers, when they are used, they are used proportionately. What we have to protect the public from is arbitrary action by the Government or any government authority."

Isabella Sankey, Liberty's director of policy, said: "Whoever is in government, the grand snooping ambitions of security agencies don't change.

"Proposals to stockpile our web, phone and texting records were shelved by Labour. Now we see plans to recycle this chilling proposal leaking into the press.

"The Coalition agreement explicitly promised to 'end unnecessary data retention' and restore our civil liberties.

"At the very least we need less secret briefing and more public consultation if this promise is to be abandoned."

Mr Davis, appearing on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, added: "For 2012, this won't be in place. If it's going to be in the Queen's Speech, the best it can be is late 2013.

"This needs to be done because it can be done - that's been the attitude of many 'securocrats' over the ages.

"The simple truth is this is not necessary. If we have a warrantary arrangement, whereby any agency that wants to intercept needs to get content or addresses, then that is the way to do it - simply go through the law."

Mr Davis said similar arguments had been made in favour of 90 days anti-terrorist detention, controversial extradition arrangements with the US, and Section 44 stop and search powers - schemes dropped or facing stiff criticism.

He said: "This is not necessary, you can do it under control of the law. What is proposed is completely unfettered access to every single communication you make. This argument it doesn't cover content - it doesn't cover content for telephone calls, but your web address is content. If you access a web (site), that is content.

"I'm afraid it is a very, very big widening of powers, which I'm afraid will be very much resented by many, many citizens who do not like the idea."

Mr Davis said he had no plans to repeat his 2008 move to resign his seat and fight a by-election to highlight civil liberties issues - insisting this was a particular proposal, as opposed to the broad-based threat to civil liberties four years ago.

Downing Street insisted today the move would cover data, such as times and dates, not the content of calls and emails.

It said proposals were included in its Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) in 2010.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "Communications data is used currently in 95% of all serious crime and terrorism cases. That communications data is information on the time, duration and dialling numbers of a phone call, it is not the content of that phone call and that is an important distinction.

"What we do need to make sure is that as technology changes we are able to maintain our current capability in this area."

But the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) warned that the Government's plans "would potentially be incompatible with the right to privacy of many ordinary people in the UK".

A spokeswoman said: "The commission's own research last year into information privacy concluded that there was a lack of proper regulatory oversight and too much conflicting legislation, all of which fails to provide adequate protection for citizens and their private information.

"We found that the way the Government and its agencies collect, use and store personal data is not respecting people's right to privacy.

"However, because of the complexity of the current laws, obligations are unclear and authorities may be unaware they are breaking the law.

"These issues need properly addressing rather than introducing new proposals which further reduce people's rights to privacy."

Speaking on a visit to a Job Centre in east London, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said: "I am totally opposed to the idea of governments reading people's emails at will or creating a new central government database.

"The point is we are not doing any of that and I wouldn't allow us to do any of that.

"I am totally opposed to it as a Liberal Democrat and someone who believes in people's privacy and civil liberties.

"All we are doing is updating the rules which currently apply to mobile telephone calls to allow the police and security services to go after terrorists and serious criminals and updating that to apply to technology like Skype which is increasingly being used by people who want to make those calls and send those emails."

Security minister James Brokenshire said the emphasis was on solving crime rather than "real-time snooping on everybody's emails".

He told BBC Radio 4's World at One programme: "We absolutely get the need for appropriate safeguards and for appropriate protections to be put in place around any changes that might come forward.

"What this is not is the previous government's plan of creating some sort of great big Big Brother database. That is precisely not what this is looking at."

Information Commissioner Christopher Graham will "press for safeguards" to protect individuals' privacy.

A spokesman for the Information Commissioner's Office said: "The Information Commissioner's role in this Home Office project, both under this government and the last, has been to press for the necessary limitations and safeguards to mitigate the impact on citizens' privacy.

"We will continue to seek assurances, including the implementation of the results of a thorough Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA).

"Ultimately, the decision as to whether to proceed with the project is one which has to be taken by Parliament."

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