Communications companies will be required to store records of customers’ phone and internet use for 12 months in long-awaited measures overhauling the laws on surveillance by the state being published today.
Theresa May, the Home Secretary, has dropped several measures from legislation – dubbed the “Snooper’s Charter” – which was blocked by the Liberal Democrats in the Coalition government.
But the draft Investigatory Powers Bill will come under attack from civil liberties groups for increasing the ability of the intelligence services to obtain access to the personal internet use of millions of citizens and to mount “data-mining” exercises.
It will also face criticism from MPs and peers from across the spectrum if it fails to transfer the authority to issue warrants from ministers to judges. Mass collection of information will enable GCHQ to launch the data-mining programmes which police and the intelligence agencies argue is crucial for tracking terrorists, as well as uncovering paedophiles and finding missing people.
The extent of surveillance by the Government’s Cheltenham listening-post was detailed in 2013 in documents obtained by the US National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden. The new Bill will put the practices on a statutory footing.
Government sources said the measures will ensure any access to such internet connection records will be strictly limited. Much attention will focus on the system under which surveillance warrants are authorised. Ms May is expected to announce that they will initially be issued by Cabinet ministers but then be reviewed by security-cleared senior judges.
David Cameron described the Bill as “one of the most important pieces of legislation” before Parliament over the next five years. He told the Cabinet that its measures would go to “heart of the Government’s duty to keep the British public safe”.
Sources disclosed the legislation would strengthen the safeguards governing local authorities’ access to data. Councils will be fined if they abuse their powers and their access to records of internet, telephone and internet use will be strictly limited to investigation of criminal offences.
“Communications data is an essential tool for the full range of law enforcement, including serious offences investigated by local authorities like rogue traders and benefit fraud,” a source said. “Sometimes communications data is the only way to identify offenders, particularly where offences are committed online. it is important people understand that communications data is only ever used in a necessary, proportionate and accountable way.”
The draft Bill reflects wide agreement that the 15-year-old legislation governing communications is fragmented and outdated given the rapid pace of technological change.
The Government insists that its measures will strengthen oversight of surveillance and improve the transparency governing the intelligence services’ activities. It said it had blocked a request from the police to allow full access to web-browsing habits and ruled out banning the encryption of messages.
But Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty has condemned the Home Office for “frantic spinning” to distract attention from moves towards the blanket collection of private data.She accused the department of initially asking for the “most outrageous, even impractical, powers” so that even the smallest so-called concessions seem more reasonable.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies