Earlier this month, four U.K. lords tried to sneak the text of a rejected piece of legislation popularly known as the Snooper’s Charter into a new anti-terror bill. After debate in the House of Lords produced heavy pushback, the peers withdrew the amendments that would have brought the surveillance law in by the back door.
And now, incredibly, they’re trying it again just days later. On Saturday, ahead of a “report stage” debate on Monday (the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill is almost fully baked), Lords West, Blair, Carlile and King introduced a new amendment that appears to be nearly identical to the last, and to the Communications Data Bill before it.
Again, this new amendment would force “telecommunications operators” – which these days includes the likes of [company]Facebook[/company] and [company]Skype[/company], as well as traditional telcos – to store communications metadata for up to a year and hand it over to U.K. authorities when requested. This data retention regime may require the providers to install “specified equipment or systems.”
The peers have left almost no time for the other lords and the rest of us to engage in serious analysis, but one thing that appears to have been dropped is the part about “filtering arrangements”, which would essentially have given U.K. authorities the power to access and cross-reference metadata from various services through a search-engine-like interface.
The definition of the “relevant public authorities” that can access the information also appears to have been tightened up to be limited to the police, the National Crime Agency and the intelligence services. This seems to be a response to one of the key criticisms: It’s bad enough giving police and intelligence services access to the fruits of what is essentially a mass surveillance scheme (so they can spy on journalists even more), but existing surveillance powers in the U.K. have already been used for all sorts of minor infractions.
Despite these two changes, this remains shocking behavior. Even after the major parties rammed the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers (DRIP) Act through the legislative process with scant debate, it is genuinely surprising to see repeated attempts to avoid proper legislative scrutiny by inserting this text at such a late stage.
The four peers in question all come from the security establishment — a former Metropolitan Police commissioner (Blair), a former secretary of defense (King), a former minister for security and counter-terrorism (West), and a former government anti-terror adviser (Carlile).
It is, at this point, worth pointing out the technology credentials of Lord King, in words he himself emitted in the chamber earlier this week:
I am not a tweeter, but we’ve got Facebook, we’ve got Twitter and somebody tried to explain to me what WhatsApp is, somebody else tried to explain to me Snapchat. My lords, I don’t know about them, but what is absolutely clear is that the terrorists and jihadists do.
Who better to ram through complex yet broadly-worded tech surveillance legislation while subverting the British democratic process?
This article was updated at 8.45am PT to note the new limits on which public authorities could access the data. As this was a second significant change to be noted in the new text, I softened my language slightly, but I maintain my strong objection to the core thrust of the amendment and the methods used to get it through.