The Conservatives will move swiftly to strengthen the online surveillance powers of the police and security services now that the block placed by their former coalition partners has been lifted, the home secretary has indicated.
Speaking as early results on Friday indicated the Conservatives would form a government with a Commons majority, Theresa May said increased surveillance powers was “one very key example” of Tory policy that was blocked by the coalition arrangement with the Liberal Democrats in the previous government.
May’s remarks alarmed privacy campaigners who fear a Conservative government will revive the controversial draft communications bill, which was beaten last year after the Lib Dems withdrew their support.
That law, labelled a snooper’s charter, would have required internet and mobile phone companies to keep records of customers’ browsing activity, social media use, emails, voice calls, online gaming and text messages for a year.
May said in a BBC interview: “David Cameron has already said, and I’ve said, that a Conservative government would be giving the security agencies and law enforcement agencies the powers that they need to ensure they’re keeping up to date as people communicate with communications data.
“We were prevented from bringing in that legislation into the last government because of the coalition with the Liberal Democrats and we are determined to bring that through, because we believe that is necessary to maintain the capabilities for our law enforcement agencies such that they can continue to do the excellent job, day in and day out, of keeping us safe and secure.”
The human rights watchdog Privacy International said May’s decision to highlight the issue so soon after her party’s re-election to government showed an “insatiable appetite” for boosting the state’s powers of surveillance.
“Raising the spectre of expanded surveillance powers only moments after the election results have emerged is a clear indication of the forthcoming assault on the rights of ordinary British citizens,” Carly Nyst, PI’s legal director, said
“Theresa May’s comments confirm that widespread public concern about the threats posed to online privacy and expression by internet monitoring powers has been completely ignored by the new government.
“Communications data legislation has been repeatedly criticised by experts and politicians from all reaches of the political spectrum, and has been beaten back by the public and civil society time and time again.
“Reviving it as a policy priority is a clear sign both of an insatiable appetite for spying powers, and intentions to continue to sacrifice the civil liberties of Britons everywhere on the altar of national security.”
Jim Killock, the executive director of Open Rights Group who last month warned the right to privacy could be meaningless within a decade under Labour and Tory plans, said he hoped politicians of all stripes would oppose the reintroduction of the bill.
“The snooper’s charter is discredited, intrusive and treats us all as suspects,” Killock said. “We hope that MPs from all parties, who care about civil liberties, will oppose any further attempt to reintroduce this fundamental threat to our freedoms.”
The Conservative manifesto had promised to strengthen the state’s powers of surveillance, despite opposition to the already considerable powers revealed by Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor now living in exile in Russia.
Documents leaked by Snowden have shown that joint UK-US programmes subject the British public to dragnet surveillance of email records, social network activity, internet browsing history and phone data. Advocates say a loss of privacy is the price society has to pay for safety from criminals and terrorists. Opponents say state snooping threatens freedom.
May’s comments came a day after the US court of appeals ruled that the bulk collection of telephone metadata is unlawful, clearing the way for a full legal challenge against the NSA. By contrast a report by in March by the House of Commons intelligence and security committee, which oversees the security services, said that UK laws were not being broken.
A poll last year found an overwhelming majority of the public believed it was important to keep not only medical, financial and credit information private, but also web browsing records, mobile phone location and telephone and email metadata.
The Ipsos Mori poll, commissioned last May by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust – a year after the Snowden leaks were first published – found that just one in eight respondents thought the government could be trusted to set limits on surveillance, compared with a fifth who said parliament should set the rules and a third who said judges should.
Nevertheless, this year’s Conservative manifesto had pledged to update legal powers of surveillance to counter threats from terrorism, organised crime and paedophiles. It said: “We will keep up to date the ability of the police and security services to access communications data – the ‘who, where, when and how’ of a communication, but not its content.
“Our new communications data legislation will strengthen our ability to disrupt terrorist plots, criminal networks and organised child grooming gangs, even as technology develops. We will maintain the ability of the authorities to intercept the content of suspects’ communications, while continuing to strengthen oversight of the use of these powers.”
This article was written by Damien Gayle, for theguardian.com on Saturday 9th May 2015 14.57 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010