The UK's Draft Communications Bill outlined in the Queen's Speech will mandate that network providers operating in the UK (such as BT, Sky or Virgin Media) collect and retain data from international internet application service providers (such as Yahoo!, MSN and Skype) when the services are used by their customers. This would be an extension of the current legislation whereby the network providers already provide data on their own customers' details and service usage (known as communications data), and which is frequently used to prevent crime, build evidence and bring offenders to justice.
However, with the proliferation of non-UK hosted internet applications, and the increasing use of smart devices to access internet services ‘on the move’, there is a growing gap in the data available to investigators. New legislation would begin to close this gap, but it provokes significant public debate over state intrusion and the erosion of civil liberties.
To maintain the security and well-being of the public and keep pace with criminal activity, the government needs to modernise surveillance capabilities and the associated legislation while maintaining public confidence.
For the proposed new legislation to succeed, the government will need to improve its communication of both the case for change and the associated safeguards to protect individual privacy:
Demonstrate that the legislation would not increase the state’s surveillance powers – the proposed new legislation is an update of long-standing powers so that they are more suitable for a more complex, internet-based communications era. Investigators currently rely on laws that evolved to monitor telephone services (including both fixed and more recently, mobile). The communications environment has changed beyond recognition over the past decade and criminals are seizing the opportunity to commit old crimes using new technologies and new crimes committed entirely in cyberspace. New legislation is a key enabler for the police and security community that is charged with protecting the UK in the face of a rapidly changing communications landscape.
Clearly explain the level of intrusion of the new powers in relation to other forms of surveillance – communications data, the subject of the proposed new legislation, does not contain the content of private communications. This vital distinction is easily misunderstood, and understandably causes public concern. It is important for the government to communicate that the intrusion authorised by the new legislation is comparable to requesting telephone records, and provides an essential tool for identifying suspects and locating vulnerable or missing persons without resorting to more intrusive surveillance.
Provide assurance that communications data information will be used appropriately – the public will expect appropriate assurances that the state’s use of communications data is proportionate in all circumstances and that the authorities are held to account through independent and transparent scrutiny. Media revelations that the existing powers have been used by public authorities to monitor fly-tipping and breaches of school catchment areas have not helped. Nevertheless, there is strong public support for giving the police and appropriate authorities the necessary tools to do their jobs effectively, particularly to maintain national security, prevent and detect crime, and protect the public from harm.
For the proposed new legislation to succeed the government needs to demonstrate to the public that it is not seeking new ways of intruding into their private lives; rather, this is a necessary and proportionate response to digital age threats. The first step is to update laws designed for a different age in order to maintain the UK’s existing security and police capabilities to protect the UK from increasingly sophisticated terrorism and serious crime.
PA Consulting Group is currently working with senior leaders from across the police and defence communities on key issues of policy, strategy and transformation.
To discuss the modernisation of policing or the new proposed communications data legislation with one of PA's experts, or to find out more about our expertise in this sector, please contact us now.