Intrusive, expensive, ineffective and not needed: this Government Bill cannot proceed

The man who led Lib Dem opposition to the snooping proposals on the technical challenges that remain, and how the Home Office has got it wrong

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Today sees the publication of a unanimous report on the Draft Communications Data Bill, dubbed the ‘snoopers charter’. After Nick Clegg insisted that this Bill should be published only as a draft, rather than rammed through Parliament, a panel of MPs and Peers from the main Parties have conducted the largest ever piece of pre-legislative scrutiny.

We have gone through the Home Office proposals – and the results are damning. The Bill as it is simply cannot proceed.

The Police and a huge range of other bodies already have access to information for 12 months about every call you make, every text message you send and the websites you visit. It’s the ‘Who, what and where’ of your call, not what you actually said.

Too far

They use this power a lot – each year sees around 500,000 requests for this data, for every thing from serious crimes to minor investigations. There are some benefits from the existing approach – communications data is undoubtedly useful. Knowing who a terrorist sent Facebook messages to can be vital.

But the Home Office proposals go way beyond the current rules with virtually no safeguards, asking for powers for the Home Secretary to insist on any information about any communications being kept, via secret notices.

Our committee has looked into this, and concludes ‘the draft Bill pays insufficient attention to the duty to respect the right to privacy, and goes much further than it need or should’.

It was shocking to me just how little effort the Home Office made to work through their proposals with the mobile phone companies and the Facebooks and the Googles. They didn’t bother to consult properly, assuming that discussions they’d had in 2009 on similar proposals by the Labour government would suffice. And they failed to talk through the details with the Commissioners here in the UK who would have to supervise the system.

Too expensive

These proposals are incredibly expensive too. The Home Office estimate is that they would cost a huge £1.8 billion, and the Committee had little faith that the cost would stay there, given the experience of other IT projects. It beggars belief that this amount of money was being committed with so little evidence at a time like this.

And while the Home Office claimed there would be large financial benefits, they were entirely incapable of providing evidence that this would be the case. As the report says ‘the estimated net benefit figure is fanciful and misleading’ and ‘none of our witnesses could provide specific evidence of significant numbers of lives saved to date’.

The Committee also heard of how broadly the powers would be used. While the Home Secretary claimed in the Sun that ‘Only suspected terrorists, paedophiles or serious criminals will be investigated’, the truth is as that it could also be used for speeding offences, fly-tipping and things as vague as being in ‘the interests of the economic well-being of the United Kingdom’. We are all suspects under this bill.

There are also massive technical challenges. Storing vast amounts of very personal data poses a huge risk – would you want someone to know that you went to www.depressionalliance.com, an abortion provider’s website or marriage counselling? And with ever-more use of encryption, it is not clear that there will be much useful data out there to collect, despite the great expense. The serious criminals the Home Secretary is looking to catch could easily get around the proposals.

Too disproportionate

So what now? After this report, there is absolutely no way that this Bill - with its incredibly wide powers and few safeguards - can possibly proceed. The Home Office has completely failed to show that it is needed, proportionate, possible or affordable. They must start from scratch.

Are there specific pieces of information that they actually do need for genuine law enforcement? Can they collect this in a way that doesn’t involve snooping in a hugely disproportionate way? Can they do this affordably? And can they actually provide evidence that it’s all worth doing – not just extreme rhetoric? They must actually talk to experts and civil liberty groups. And they have to show us the evidence.

This Bill has been put to the test, and failed.

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