UK Data Bill: A Direction For Future Debate

In the present climate of uncertainty over privacy, creating proportional laws that strike the right balance between national security and liberty has become increasingly difficult.




Communication Data has always played a major role in police investigations in democracies across the globe. Knowledge of who spoke to whom, when, and how has played an important role in preventing, detecting, and averting crime. In the ever-changing technology landscape of today, online surveillance has become a major part of police investigations. However, in the present climate of uncertainty over privacy, creating proportional laws that strike the right balance between national security and liberty has become increasingly difficult.

Over the past few years, numerous efforts have been made by the government to enable easier and effective web snooping. Every now and then, the government attempts to increase the powers of law enforcement agencies in acquiring such data, however it is often put on hold in the face of heavy protest. The government’s efforts emerged again in April this year as the Draft Communication Data Bill, with renewed plans to order telecommunication companies to store online communication data (defined as subscriber, use and traffic data). It has yet again faced a severe blow from two Parliamentary Committees that undertook a brief pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Bill, UK telecom players, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and a whole range of foreign technology and media companies – most of whom have been consulted by the Committees. However, the Intelligence & Security Committee (ISC) also questions if the legislation will solve the problem of the present capability gap.

The Joint Committee report – which hit upon the three P’s: privacy, price and proportionality – has made several useful suggestions to the government on how and why the government should consider redrafting the bill. The report has been extremely critical in a) pinpointing the misleading price tag of £1.8 billion presented by the Home Office, b) clearly stating the lack of proportionality within the bill that would threaten privacy and free expression, and c) predominantly insisting that the language of the Bill needed an urgent update, reflecting upon the written evidence submitted by The Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos. However, the damning verdict provided by the Joint Committee provides sufficient direction for future debate.

Following severe criticism from some MPs and peers, Prime Minister David Cameron has agreed to redraft the bill. If the government adopts a revision of definitions of communication data and if fewer agencies were authorized to access and use of such data, it is highly likely to help the government strike a balance between security and liberty. Further, putting the public at the heart of the Bill, the Committee realized the necessity to develop a new hierarchy of communication data, upgrade existing definitions and divide them into categories that suggest the level of intrusion of each type of communication data.

As the Home Office looks at ways to redraft, here are my suggestions for future debate:

The need to analyze implications of the bill for the general public

According to a recent Google Transparency Report, government surveillance across the world is on the rise, but the UK government has only made 1,425 requests for users’ data as opposed to US which has made 7,969 requests. However, the general public is unaware of what online surveillance there already is, and how such intelligence is used by law enforcement and security agencies. However, according to a recent survey by YouGov commissioned by Big Brother Watch, nearly 50% of Britons consider the bill to be bad value for money. It is essential therefore to engage in a data dialogue with the public in order to educate them and address their major concerns.

The need to understand public attitudes towards privacy and surveillance

While there are numerous studies on public attitudes towards data sharing, there is barely any full-fledged study evaluating public attitudes towards privacy and online surveillance in UK. While the above mentioned survey reveals that 71% of Britons are concerned over data-security, we are still unaware of public awareness of the surveillance, data protection and related confidence in the UK government.

The lack of clarity around Deep Packet Inspection (DPI)

Several governments and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) including United States, China, Iran, Russia and Kazakhstan are using DPI for a variety of reasons. ISPs in Ethiopia and Denmark have recently joined the list. While governments predominantly use DPI for censorship, ISPs use the technology to make Skype calls and YouTube videos play smoothly, stop viruses, dividing signal strengths and a variety of other reasons. In 2009, the US government in fact tried to introduce a privacy legislation to prohibit the use of DPI for behavioral advertising. Leaks from the UN International Telecommunications Union reveal Orwellian proposals towards implementing a DPI standard that will allow governments to snoop at a worldwide scale. As the argument about UK being the only democracy to be using such draconian measures fails, further investigation into the use and applicability of DPI becomes vital.


Photo credit: striatic

2 thoughts on “UK Data Bill: A Direction For Future Debate”

  1. I constantly fail to understand the public backlash to communications bills. If you have done nothing wrong then you have nothing to fear. All this nonsense about the UK being a police state, or working its way towards being a police state, is exactly that: nonsense.

  2. A database of deeply personal information this ridiculously far stretching, handled by a government as inept as ours would be a disaster waiting to happen.

    And they try this every few years, it keeps coming back and getting shot back down because it’s a massive waste of money.

    Why don’t we all have cameras installed in our homes? Or daily raids to search our houses? Microchips on bins.. If you’ve got nothing to hide yeah? That is why these bills need to be scrapped.

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