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Politics Today

Snoopers’ Charter or National Security?

todayMarch 3, 2016 11

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The News Hour

The Bill would give new powers to the security services and police to protect us from terrorist plots and the activities of criminal gangs, but some see these powers as unnecessarily draconian. The Government want to push the Bill through before December when the existing Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act expires.

The Bill requires those who provide our web and phone services to preserve records of our browsing and phone calls for 12 months, for the security services and police to access and it allows them to hack into our computers and telephones. The safeguard against abuse of these powers includes a ‘double-lock’ of ministerial authorisation and a panel of seven judicial commissioners who can veto specific applications to use these powers. Exceptionally in urgent cases the veto does not apply for up to five days. A senior judge will serve as an Investigatory Powers Commissioner and the Prime Minister must be consulted if MPs communications are to be intercepted. Similar safeguards will be included in relation to journalists and other ‘sensitive professions’.

The case for this legislation is obvious in relation to the threats posed by terrorists like those who attacked Paris last November. That involved at least three groups coordinated by phone, email and social media. Islamic State uses social media a lot to communicate with its supporters. Hundreds of Britons have gone to Syria to fight with them and some have returned, possibly to engage in terrorist acts here. The Security Services can only prevent these acts if they have fore-knowledge of them from close surveillance of the communications of suspected terrorists. Similarly, the police want to be able to counter increasingly sophisticated criminal gangs which hack into telephone services, like “Talk Talk”, to access our bank details.

Whilst its critics recognise the need for strong surveillance powers, they want more safeguards and question the need to push the Bill through whilst the nation is pre-occupied with the EU referendum. The timetable for the Bill aims to complete its legislative passage before the summer recess. The critics argue that this haste is unnecessary and suggest that the sunset clause that will expire the existing legislation in December could be extended for another year to give more time for a debate to address their fears. They want the Bill to be divided into two Bills, with the data retention provisions to be separated from the investigatory powers. They are concerned about the pressures on Apple by the US Government to over-ride encryption protecting emails from hacking and don’t want the UK to follow that lead. Three separate Parliamentary inquiries into a draft version of the Bill made 123 recommendations and critics say that the Bill does not take full account of them.

The tension between personal privacy and national security is a real one. Some will say if one has nothing to hide the Bill is fine but others fear the potential abuse of these powers. If our communications can lawfully be intercepted by public guardians they can also be unlawfully intercepted by criminals. We all need wisdom, individually in terms of what we do online and on our phones, and communally in the use of the proposed powers to protect us and maintain the rule of law.

Written by: Miriam Emenike

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