x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

UK proposal to monitor internet faces stiff opposition

Under the proposed law, the government's electronic eavesdropping agency would be able to track and identify people in any form of electronic communication.

LONDON // A proposed law that would allow the government to monitor every Briton's email, phone, text and website exchanges faces significant opposition in parliament.

Under the proposed law - which the government insists is simply modernising existing legislation - UK internet companies will have to install hardware to enable the security services to track all electronic communications.

Existing legislation only allows police or the security services to monitor an individual's phone and email traffic if permission is obtained from a court.

Under the proposed law, GCHQ, the government's electronic eavesdropping agency, would be able to track and identify people in any form of electronic communication, including Twitter and Facebook.

However, court approval still would be needed to read what is actually being said or transmitted.

The Home Office argues that the new powers are needed to combat terrorism. However, an attempt at similar legislation by the then Labour government was defeated five years ago amid objections from its own backbenchers and Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs, who are now in partnership in government.

Mark Field, a Conservative member of the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee, told the BBC that opposition had grown since Labour's attempt to legislate.

"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 this entirely unvarnished way," he said.

"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."

David Davis, another Conservative MP and former contender for party leader, added: "It is not focusing on terrorists or on criminals. It is absolutely everybody. Historically, governments have been kept out of our private lives.

"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."

Malcolm Bruce, a veteran Liberal Democrat MP, felt that the system could be 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 said in a BBC radio interview.

"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."

Civil liberties groups are also lining up against the proposed legislation. Shami Chakrabarti, director of the group Liberty, told Sky News that the plan undermined the coalition government's commitment to human rights.

Isabella Sankey, Liberty's policy director, added: "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."

However, a Home Office spokesman insisted yesterday: "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."