As I am sure you are aware, the European Court of Justice has struck down regulations enabling internet providers to retain communications data for law enforcement purposes for up to 12 months. Unless they have a business reason to hold this data, internet and phone companies will delete it, and this would have serious consequences for ongoing criminal investigations. It means that the police and intelligence agencies are in danger of losing access to vital information which is used in 95% of serious and organised crime investigations, as well as in counter-terrorism cases and in dealing with online child abuse.
To give you an idea of what we are talking about in practice, without this data being kept the police would not be able to: locate missing children; catch paedophiles sharing child abuse images through online networks; the mobile phone records that helped police find out about the attempted terrorist attack at Glasgow airport in 2007 would no longer be available; and the security services wouldn’t have been able to check who the Woolwich attackers had contacted previously to make sure there were no further attacks planned. And it was retention of such data that helped to identify where Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman were before their phone was switched off, and this was information that helped lead to the conviction of Ian Huntley for their murder.
The data in question – for which the police need a warrant – is not the content of emails, texts or internet use, but information about who texted/called whom and when, or where a phone was at a particular time This clearly helps in investigations, but it also can help clear innocent people of any involvement. For the content of these communications to be accessed, a warrant also needs to be obtained.
In order to prevent the loss of access to this data, UK legislation needs to change to ensure that it both complies with EU law and retains the ability to access this data for the protection of the public. The main purpose of this emergency legislation is therefore to put the law back where it was before the ECJ judgement; i.e. it does not extend any existing powers. It also offers important new safeguards (see below).
The second part of the legislation covers circumstances where a warrant has been issued to intercept communication. Some companies have been calling for a clearer legal framework to underpin their cooperation with law enforcement and intelligence agencies to intercept what terrorists and serious criminals are saying to each other. This is the ability to access content with a warrant which the law provides for. Where a warrant has been issued, it is clearly important that companies co-operate with UK law enforcement and intelligence agencies, whether they are based in the UK or overseas. The Bill therefore proposes to make this clear, which should be the position currently anyway.
On the important issue of principle, there is of course a balance to be struck here between the protection of our privacy and preventing serious crime and threats to life. For example, if the police and security services are investigating a plot to cause explosions and they become aware of an individual whom they think is planning such activity, they will naturally want to find out whether that individual has been communicating with anyone else who may also be involved. They will not be able to do this if the communications data for those people has already been deleted. And because, before an investigation starts, no-one knows where it may lead, it is evidently not possible to require telephone providers and internet firms only to retain data on certain suspect individuals. And that is why all the information has to be retained so that the relevant data can be found. That is why I support its retention.
I do, however, share the real concerns that have been expressed about the nature of surveillance, not least after recent revelations by Edward Snowden. And given the limited Parliamentary time being made available to discuss this Bill, Labour has ensured that the Government’s legislation is temporary and will expire in 2016. This will require the Government and Parliament to properly consult on and consider longer term proposals next year.
The Government has agreed to a new Privacy and Civil Liberties Board. Labour has narrowed the reasons to apply for warrants to intercept emails or phone calls to cases explicitly about national security and serious crime – instead of the previous wider ‘economic well-being’ test. Labour also tabled an amendment, now accepted by the government, requiring the Interception of Communications Commissioner to report on the workings of this new Act within six months of commencement and every six months thereafter. This will be a significant improvement in oversight and accountability.
We have also secured agreement to our proposal for a major independent review of the legal framework governing data access and interception (the RIPA review that we called for earlier this year). This is a major reform and it will start straight away. It will look at everything in this area, including data retention and access. We are also seeking to amend the Bill to make this review part of the law.
In the wake of the Snowden revelations, and the concerns raised about whether the legal framework has failed to keep up with new technology, there is a clear need for wider public debate about the right balance between security and privacy online, and for a review of powers and stronger oversight. The review we have secured will enable longer term questions and concerns to be properly dealt with and debated in time for new legislation. The review is actually a better outcome than the call for the current legislation to lapse in 5 months’ time, because this would be insufficient time for there to be a serious, thorough and sustained public debate and consultation which will be needed to get this right.
Finally, I do share your concerns about the rushed way in which these proposals have been presented to Parliament, but the timetable does not, however, detract from having to consider the fundamental issue of whether we as a society need these powers to protect ourselves. I respect the views of those who say that privacy should take precedence over protection of the public, but I take a different view. And it is for all these reasons, and with these safeguards, that I voted for the Bill.