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ShareICO is right to demand detail on the ‘Big Brother intrusive filter’


Paul Heritage-Redpath, Product Manager

The Information Commissioners Office (ICO) –the UK’s independent authority set up to uphold information rights in the public interest, has demanded that the Home Office provide answers by 11th May 2013 explaining what the “Request filter” system submerged in the controversial Communications Data Bill actually does.

Recap: What the snooping bill entails

When the draft Communications Data Bill was first proposed by the Home Office on 14th June 2012, they described the bill as a ’vital tool’ to help police and snoopers’ catch paedophiles, terrorists and other serious criminals. Privacy International, the registered charity that aims to defend privacy rights across the globe, reports that it has been part of the Home Office’s on-going quest to gain new communications surveillance powers since 2006.

If the Bill is passed in its original form, UK Internet Service Providers will be required by law to collate information that isn’t relevant to business purpose. Entanet will have to monitor all its resellers’ customers’ activities and retain this information for up to a year. The Home Secretary can decide for ‘black boxes’ also known as a ‘request filter’ to be installed at our premises. The Home Secretary will also be able to mandate to specific Internet providers the type of technology that they must deploy to collect information. And authorisation to access this information will be self-authorised by senior members of the Police, intelligence agencies and the tax office (however other departments will require judicial authorisation.)

As it stands, the Home Office still fails to say or discuss exactly what the request filter would do.

Home Office at risk of being held in ‘contempt of court’

On Tuesday 22nd April 2013 the ICO demanded under the Freedom of Information Act that the Home Office publish any information that ministers have received regarding the design, cost and risks for crucial parts of the controversial Communications Data Bill. So far as we are aware, this is the first time one government agency has put another at risk of being in contempt of court for failing to disclose information. The Home Office have gone to great lengths to avoid making clear the technical detail of their proposals, even to the parliamentary committee scrutinising them.

Last year, as members of ISPA, Entanet took the opportunity to ask a representative from the Home Office what they had to say about the Bill. Unfortunately questions were answered generally and evasively, while we were told several times that it was a matter of ‘national security’.
It is interesting to note that The Times reports Tory MP Dominic Raab also submitted a Freedom of Information request last summer. However as with us the Home Office cited “national security” concerns for refusing to disclose this information.

Furthermore The Daily Mail, in referring to the Bill as ‘The snoopers’ charter’, has recently reported that since May 2010 the Home Office has spent £400 million on its communications capabilities development programme before a single piece of data has been collected. Many are under the impression that the government has drastically underestimated how much the system will cost, with an official estimate (over ten years) of £1.8 billion!

Last week the Home Secretary was asked in parliament exactly what that taxpayer money had paid for so far. Unsurprisingly, clarity was not forthcoming. A spokesperson at Theresa May’s department said in response to the ICO’s notice: “The proposed request filter will further protect privacy by discarding all data not directly relevant to an investigation.”

“The magic by which a database query can decide what information is relevant and securely delete such data was not expanded upon.”

Entanet’s Opinion

In previous articles and in person before the Joint Committee, Entanet criticised the draft Communications Bill and almost a year on we still hold the same view on the matter. Vital questions still have not been answered, leaving so much room for speculation and fear for the worst. Our main concern still stands – preserving the privacy of our Partners’ customers.
The Joint Committee have collectively agreed and stated:

‘It is our strong belief that the Government, in imposing obligations on CSPs, should bear in mind the importance of preserving their competitiveness, and minimising damage to the reputation of the United Kingdom as an attractive base for conducting business.’

Overall we stand by our belief that the Communications Data Bill is futile. We do not agree that the proposal that we retain web logs is necessary or proportionate for the detection of crime, on the basis that it can still show a pattern of behaviour of the end user. Criminals, having the knowledge that they are being monitored, will simply find other means to commit crimes undetectable to these filters, for example by using VPNs and proxy servers. That being said, we believe that the Bill is a direct attack on human rights.

Entanet is excited about the ICO’s demands from the Home Office and hopes that it will offer some clarity, reveal vital missing information and answer pressing, vital questions. It’s time the Home Office put an end to the ambiguity surrounding what this controversial ‘Big Brother intrusive filter’ actually is.

Have your say!
What are your thoughts about the fact the public have been kept in the dark about the details of the Communications Data Bill? Do you agree with the Home Office that the Bill will help to speed up complex inquiries and will minimise collateral intrusion or do you think that it is a direct attack on human rights? Please leave us your thoughts in a comment below.

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