UK: Authorities to get more power to spy out communication data

by Jane Whyatt

Britain is fast-tracking a new law to give police and secret services extra powers to collect and keep personal data. Phone calls, conversations over the internet (e.g. skype, hangouts), SMS messages and web searches will all be included. The National Union of Journalists and civil liberty groups fear it will restrict journalists’ work by exposing their confidential sources and whistleblowers.

Senior lawyer Alex Bailin QC (Queen’s Counsel, a barrister of special status) argues that the new law’s safeguards for journalists are “completely inadequate in terms of Article 10”. The article refers to the section of the European Convention on Human rights that protects press freedom and freedom of expression.

Social Media_900 Growing amounts of social media data are becoming available to regulators, which is one element critics are concerned about. (Photo: Public domain)

”Millions of innocent users” affected

The human rights campaign “Liberty” denounced the Investigatory Powers Bill (IP), claiming:

“It will force communications companies to collect and hand over detailed records of everything you do online, building an intimate picture of your life. The Bill gives the Government power to hack into phones and computers on a mass scale – not just one person or place, but potentially millions of innocent users.”

The new law passed its first parliamentary hurdle on 15th March 2016. The progress can be tracked online.

Defending the new Bill in Parliament, Home Secretary Teresa May said that the British authorities have foiled 40 terrorist plots since the July 2005 London transport bombings, which killed 52 people. In August 2015, Britain raised its threat level from "substantial" to "severe", indicating an attack is highly likely.

The IP Bill will update the controversial “RIPA” (Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act) legislation, which has led to cases of journalists’ mobile phone calls being secretly collected by police trying to identify the source of a story, for example at the Sun

Journalistic sources at risk

Investigative journalist Duncan Campbell, speaking to ECPMF at the Logan Symposium in Berlin, said the IP Bill was unjustified: “In Paris, in Copenhagen, in London and even the 9/11 attackers in the United States, there was data in the system. They were already known to the authorities”. He argues that mass collection and retention of data will not help to defeat terrorism and that what is needed is conventional surveillance carried out under warrant.

However, since the new law is already speeding through the Parliamentary process, Campbell recommends that journalists, lawyers, sources and whistle-blowers should consider whether they need to encrypt their communications. He has this advice: first assess the level of threat and ask yourself – is it necessary?


Listen here to Duncan Campbell's guidance on how to assess the risk: