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Insight

Watching Cyberspace: "Snooper's Charter" Revived?

It was no surprise that, following opposition from several quarters, the Communications Data bill proposed by the Home Secretary Theresa May did not feature in the recent Queen's Speech.   What was included however, was a statement that "in relation to the problem of matching internet protocol addresses, my government will bring forward proposals to enable the protection of the public and the investigation of crime in cyberspace".  The question is, what can be achieved practically through legislation, and what impact might this have on the privacy of private communications?

The draft Communications Bill was put forward in June of last year, and was intended to give the police and intelligence services access to a wider pool of information about communications.  The proposed legislation would have given the Secretary of State powers to order telecommunications services and systems providers to generate, and retain necessary communications data (the "who, when, where and how" about a communication, but not its content).  This would have been a substantial change, as communications service providers currently only have to retain communications data that they generate as part of the day-to-day business of providing the communications service.

Opposition to the bill came from a number of sources, among them the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch.  Emma Carr, Deputy Director of the campaign group stated that "recording the websites we look at and who we e-mail would not have made us safer", and "it would have made Britain a less attractive place to start a company and put British companies in the position of being paid by the government to spy on their customers" - certainly a difficult position for any communication service provider.  As a result of the opposition, the bill was dropped in December 2012.

However, Her Majesty's statement may be a revival of some aspects of the so-called 'snooper's charter', indicating the government's wish to pass legislation to more closely match individuals' identities to IP addresses.  But would such legislation be feasible?  Some technology experts think not - for example Professor Tafazolli of Surrey University's Centre for Communications Systems Research who believes that "the problem stems from the way that the fixed internet has been designed".  There are not enough IP addresses to go around and, because more than one person may be associated with a single IP address or an IP address may be dynamically assigned (every time a person logs on), it would be technically difficult to link an IP address to a particular person.  Professor Tafazolli suggests that a person's internet use might be linked to their device's MAC address, but this would require a fundamental change to how addresses are allocated on the internet - something that would require global co-operation, not just legislative action in Britain.

Concern has been expressed by some commentators following the announcement as there are worries that wider powers would put innocent people at risk of wrongful suspicions, and that measures taken could in any event be bypassed by tech-savvy criminals.  However, the particular focus of the Queen's message implies that any such measures will, if technical issues can be overcome, be less intrusive than under earlier proposals.  This may in part be driven by the government's need to allay any fears the public may have that innocent citizens' privacy will be under threat.

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