Snoopers Charter Communications Bill will uncover wrong targets warns data watchdog

Plans to monitor all Britons’ online activity risk uncovering “incompetent criminals and accidental anarchists” rather than serious offenders, the Information Commissioner has warned.Ministers want to strengthen the law on internet data retention to help the police tackle security threats.

However Christopher Graham- the Information Commissioner said the “really scary people” could simply avoid detection by changing their behaviour.

Under the government’s plans, currently being scrutinised by Parliament, service providers will have to store details of internet use in the UK for a year to allow police and intelligence services to access it.

Records will include people’s activity on social network sites, webmail, internet phone calls and online gaming.

Ministers argue law enforcement agencies need to keep pace with the changing technology used by offenders but critics have called the proposals a “snooper’s charter”.
Question of judgement

Christopher Graham told a committee of MPs and peers set up to scrutinise the legislation that it may end up only applying to the six largest companies – which control about 94% of the market.

There was a danger that the most serious criminals, including terrorists, would simply use a smaller provider or an overseas network that permitted encrypted communications and take the view they were “home free”.

It was up to Parliament to decide on the merits of the proposals, he added, but there were “important data protection principles at stake”, such as the length of time material was retained, the risk of unauthorised access and whether it was fully disposed off at the end of the period.

“There is a judgement to be made between the security community saying ‘we have to have this stuff’ and the civil liberties community which says this is a gross intrusion of privacy and of citizens’ rights.”

The legislation, if approved, should be kept under consistent review to ensure it was working as intended, Mr Graham said.

“It really is for Parliament to keep a watch on these things,” he added. “You can have commissioners to chase up on this and that. But this will not be one to legislate and forget.”

He said there needed to be detailed discussions about how the new compliance regime would work and the information commissioner would need more powers and resources to keep track of all the material stored.