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Communications data filtering back on legislative agenda in the UK

Communication providers could be forced to set up a system for filtering the communications data they store so as to provide that data to law enforcement bodies in a more "lawful, efficient and effective" manner, under new plans being considered by UK law makers.26 Jan 2015

The proposed new rules, which would give the government powers to require communication providers to put in place "filtering arrangements" to help them obtain, process and disclose data requested by law enforcement agencies, are set to be scrutinised by a House of Lords committee today.

The planned inclusion of the rules in the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill has been met with criticism from a trade body representing UK internet services providers.

The Internet Service Providers' Association (ISPA) said the amendments added to the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill are similar to proposals previously contained in the draft Communications Data Bill. The UK government stepped back from progressing with its Communications Data Bill plans in 2013 after a number of privacy concerns were raised. However, David Cameron recently announced his intention to introduce new "comprehensive" communications surveillance laws if re-elected as UK prime minister after the general election.

'Communications data' concerns the traffic data surrounding phone and internet communications, such as the source of a communication, its destination, date, time, duration and type. They do not relate to the content of communications, which is protected by other laws.

"Inserting the clauses contained in the draft Communications Data Bill into an already complex Bill that is itself proceeding through parliament via a fast-tracked process is ill-judged," the ISPA said. "The Lords cannot have time to properly consider the substantial powers contained in the amendments to the Bill, and would deny the Commons the opportunity to properly consider the powers as well."

"The draft Communications Data Bill was scrutinised by a Joint Parliamentary Committee in 2012 who concluded that there 'should be a new round of consultation with technical experts, industry, law enforcement bodies, public authorities and civil liberties groups'. At the time industry was critical of the level of consultation and there has since been no adequate consultation since," it said.

"The Committee also had substantial concerns around the wholesale collection and analysis of communications data, oversight regime, definitions of communications data and robustness of cost estimates, and these have not been addressed and would require considerable changes to the current drafting. Introducing as amendments to a Bill that is being fast-tracked through Parliament, without acknowledging the need for further debate and substantial change, is deeply regrettable," the ISPA said.

One of the peers behind the proposed new amendments said there is a need for new communications data laws to be introduced before the general election so as to address concerns expressed by security services and the police about gaps in their surveillance capabilities as a result of new technologies.

Lord Carlile told the Guardian: "We have got to give parliament an opportunity to provide these powers without delay and before the general election. We have made a deliberate effort to remove the aspects of the draft communications bill that people found unacceptable, such as giving powers to local authorities, Revenue and Customs or water companies. The powers are confined to the police and intelligence agencies."