UK to fast-track controversial surveillance bill | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 14.07.2014
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UK to fast-track controversial surveillance bill

The British government's plan to push through a controversial emergency surveillance bill in parliament this week has been met with fierce criticism. Rights groups say the move is an excuse to expand power.

British Prime Minister David Cameron intends to rush through an emergency surveillance bill this week that makes it mandatory for Internet service providers to store call and search records for a year. The Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill (DRIP) was presented to the House of Commons, the lower house of the British parliament, late on Monday (14.07.2014) and is scheduled to be passed by both houses of parliament by Thursday before summer recess.

Cameron said this new law was necessary to address a court ruling from April this year when the European Court of Justice struck down a 2006 EU directive requiring companies to store metadata for up to two years, saying it violated citizens' privacy.

DRIP was meant to respond to the court's concerns and provide a legal framework for data retention, he added.

"Sometimes, in the dangerous world in which we live, we need our security services to listen to someone's phone and read their emails to identify and disrupt a terrorist plot," Cameron told reporters at a press conference last week.

"I want to be very clear that we are not introducing new powers or capabilities," he said.

Thousands of servers are pictured (photo: JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images)

Even metadata can reveal crucial information on people's habits, whereabouts, and illnesses

Drip, drip, drip… DRIP eroding citizens' privacy?

However, privacy and civil rights groups have said that DRIP does indeed introduce new powers.

"The government has been told by the CJEU [Court of Justice of the European Union] that existing powers should be scaled back. Instead, it's using this judgment as an excuse to extend its powers," Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group (ORG) told DW in writing. "This is not legislation to restore the status quo but an extension of surveillance powers and the blatant dismissal of our human rights."

Under the new proposed law, the government also introduces extraterritorial surveillance, for example by forcing operators outside the UK to comply with its regulations.

"This extends powers to extraterritorial data, which means Google and Facebook and other operators overseas," explained Mike Harris, campaign director of Don't Spy On Us, a coalition of organizations who defend privacy, free expression, and digital rights in the UK and in Europe. "And [this law] has been bounced through parliament on the back of a supposed emergency."

The emergency that Cameron's government has identified seems to be that groups like ORG have threatened legal action against Britain's old data retention legislation as outlawed by the CJEU.

The Law Society has also issued a stark warning, saying "introducing emergency legislation does nothing to enhance the rule of law or address the fact that we are increasingly becoming a 'surveillance society'," the society's president Andrew Caplen said in a statement. "There needs to be a public debate about how to strike the right balance between security, freedom and privacy. We need to simplify and clarify a complex and confusing legal framework and ensure that it protects human rights."

David Cameron and Nick Clegg (photo: Matt Dunham-Pool/AP/dapd)

Cameron (left) and his coalition partner discussed this bill behind closed doors

Deal behind closed doors?

The proposal was brokered behind closed doors between Britain's three major political parties - Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and the opposition Labour Party.

However, there could be some fierce discussion emerging in parliament, as some MPs were informed, according to Labour MP Tom Watson.

"None of your elected backbench MPs have been told what Bill is to be debated on Monday," he wrote last week. "Surveillance laws do not have to be handled as an emergency. We've known about this issue since April. Regardless of where you stand on the decision of the European Court of Justice, can you honestly say that you want a key decision about how your personal data is stored to be made by a stitch up behind closed doors and clouded in secrecy?"

Metadata can reveal much more than most people are aware of, Harris added. If someone is going to an HIV or cancer clinic, you know they may have an illness. If they go to a political rally against fracking or nuclear power, you know they are involved in this form of protest, Harris explained. "Metadata tells you a lot about people. And this legislation would enable a bulk collection of metadata."

'Not compatible with European freedoms'

And this new law is similar to the legislation that was canned by the EU court this April, he added. "When this goes to the European Court of Justice, it is once again going to look at this legislation, and it's going to say that it's fundamentally not compatible with European freedoms," Harris said. "This is the UK government kicking the can down the road using a very, very short-term piece of legislation."

Instead of mass data retention, he argues, "we need more targeted data retention for people that are involved in criminal behavior."

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