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In Woolwich aftermath, UK revives 'snooper's charter'

Britain's Government Communications Headquarters, where some digital monitoring takes place. (Reuters)

Key elements of the British Communications Data Bill, known as the "snooper's charter" by its critics, have returned to the political agenda in the month since two suspected jihadis fatally stabbed Lee Rigby, a 23-year-old soldier, in London's southeast Woolwich district. The bill, which would have given police and security services greater ability to monitor Internet use, had been abandoned after the Liberal Democrats, Prime Minister's David Cameron's junior partners, cited privacy concerns and struck it from the government's annual legislative agenda.

But within days of the May 22 killing, the bill's main advocate, conservative Home Secretary Theresa May, signaled she would renew efforts to step up government surveillance. "She is absolutely determined to do something on this," a senior Tory source told The Independent. Revived support for government surveillance from a number of political corners has raised the likelihood that aspects of the measure will come before Parliament in amended form. Political controversy and coalition infighting remains fierce on the issue, but the post-Woolwich trauma could force critics to support at least some parts of the so-called "snooper's charter."

The government's original plans called for Internet service providers to store more customer data for a longer of period of time. As CPJ reported in October:

The bill would extend to up to 12 months the time telecommunications firms have to store data and broaden the range of the data they need to store. It would include data they don't currently retain like details of messages sent on social media such as Facebook or Twitter, Web-based mail such as Gmail, and voice calls over the Internet such as Skype, in addition to client-based emails and phone calls. The data would not include the "content" of messages (what is being said, written, or tweeted); officers would still need a warrant to access content. As stated in the draft presented by the government in June, "Communications data falls into three categories: subscriber data; use data; and traffic data." The British Government wants all telecommunications companies to store for a year those data, which include traffic information such as the time, duration, originator, and recipient of a communication and the location of the device from which it is made.

The debate on the bill has centered on individual privacy and data protection. Traffic and use data can tell a lot about what individual citizens are doing--the websites they visit; their use of geolocalized telephone applications; their Facebook activity.

"May is using Woolwich as an excuse for bringing back a totally disproportionate measure of population-wide data collection that no democracy should countenance," Kirsty Hughes, head of Index on Censorship, told CPJ. "The law already allows for those inciting violence to be prosecuted, and the best way to contest hate speech is with more speech not less speech," she added, referring to those claiming that jihadi propaganda should be banned.

But pressure to enact aspects of the bill comes not only from the conservative party. Last week, several former Labour Home secretaries, including Jack Straw, David Blunkett and Alan Johnson, wrote a letter to The Times in support of the bill. "The proposed Communications Data Bill does not want access to the content of our communications but does want to ensure that enough data is available in the aftermath of an attack to help investigators to establish 'who, where and when' were involved in planning or supporting it; this same communications data can also be vital in exploiting leads to prevent future serious crimes," they wrote.

The letter was also signed by a conservative member of parliament, Ben Wallace, and Tom King, Baron King of Bridgwater, a high-ranking liberal considered one of Britain's top legal experts after he served as the independent reviewer of British anti-terrorist laws from 2005 to 2011. The letter seemed intended to pressure Nick Clegg, the liberal deputy prime minister, to drop his opposition to the bill. It is working.

As pressure has mounted, Clegg said the government would "solve" the issue of security services needing more power to monitor suspects, and he indicated his party was ready to look at "some parts" of the Communications Data Bill. "But you need to strike the right balance," he said in a radio interview, as reported by The Daily Telegraph. "The British public wants us politicians to strike a very difficult balance of democracy, freedom and traditions of liberty and giving the security services and police the tools they need," he said. Clegg stressed his party still thinks the idea of storing every Internet address people visit is "excessive," but he recognized the issue of tracking who owns computers and other electronic devices needs addressing.

Beyond the classic dilemma of security versus liberty, the digital age helps focus the philosophical debate into a narrower framework: How much digital information do governments need to monitor, or store, to keep us safe? As reported by The Washington Post and The Guardian this month, the U.S. National Security Agency is conducting widespread monitoring of telephone and digital records.

Big Brother Watch, a UK civil liberties advocacy group, said "it should be remembered that the UK already received more communications data from Internet companies than many other countries; for instance, the UK received more information from Skype than any other country in the world." If security services already have access to a lot of information, to what use would they put even more data? One argument used by those supporting the Communications Data Bill is that it might have prevented the Woolwich attack. But even London's conservative mayor, Boris Johnson, who says arguments for the proposed law are "pretty compelling," has said "it's much too early for us to say whether [the measure] would have been of any use at all in this particular case."

Jamie Bartlett, head of a program that examines radicalism and extremism at Demos, an independent, left-leaning British political analysis think-tank, is "mildly in favor" of the disputed legislation. But he is "skeptical that the Communications Data Bill could have prevented this attack because it required very little coordination, technical know-how, or planning," he said in a digital debate around the issue hosted by Index on Censorship. He called the attack "almost impossible to spot and stop," although the powers granted by the bill could have been useful to investigators in the aftermath.

A recent Pew Research poll found a majority of Americans willing to accept a level of intrusion in their privacy to fight terrorism. Europeans might be less willing, but the post-Woolwich debate will inevitably be used to galvanize support around the idea that more surveillance powers are needed to combat terrorism.

[Reporting from London]

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