Privacy campaigners have called for the lifting of restrictions on the use of existing police and security service powers to monitor the communications of terror suspects, as an alternative to the intrusive £1.8bn “snooper’s charter” legislation.
Privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch says police already have the ability under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) code to demand communications data – “who sent what to whom from where and when” – from internet and phone companies on terror and serious crime suspects. The powers are already widely used: 494,078 such requests were made by police and security services in 2011 alone.
But the existing Ripa code of practice means police can only ask the companies to hand over data for a period of up to 30 days and the requests are only valid for one month.
Campaigners say the power would be much more effective if they were able to track such data on terror suspects for an initial period of six months, possibly renewable for longer periods on the decision of a judge.
The move comes as the cabinet secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, is believed to be leading attempts to break the coalition logjam over Theresa May’s communications data bill, which was dropped from the Queen’s speech after outright opposition from Nick Clegg.
Heywood’s team is believed to be examining the scope of extending the existing Ripa regime to close the “capability gap” caused by rapidly changing technology, such as Skype and social media, that the home secretary says the communications data bill is needed to address.
The parliamentary scrutiny committee, which included a former cabinet secretary and was chaired by a Conservative ex-Home Office minister, concluded that the legislation, which proposes to track and store for 12 months everybody’s email, social media, internet and mobile use, amounted to overkill.
The MPs and peers said the proposed bill paid too little attention to the right to privacy, adding that ministers needed to curb their zeal to “future-proof” the legislation and instead needed to concentrate on getting the immediate necessities right. They also criticised its £1.8bn costing as “fanciful and misleading”.
May redrew the legislation and put forward proposals that she said would meet the scrutiny committee’s objections. But Clegg still vetoed the rewritten bill, saying it remained “disproportionate and unworkable”.
Emma Carr, deputy director of Big Brother Watch, said: “If someone is suspected of plotting atrocities, it is right they can be put under surveillance. The challenge is that clearly some surveillance requires a lot of manpower, while new technology offers the ability to monitor someone’s communications much more easily. The law already allows people’s houses to be bugged and people followed in the street, and if these powers cannot be applied to digital communications then that is a problem the communications data bill would not fix.”
She said that at present the authorities were hindered from collecting data about an individual for more than 30 days and were unable to use evidence obtained by intercepts in court. “These are serious restrictions that could be removed without a threat to civil liberties,” said Carr.
“So we are faced with a situation where the surveillance of suspected terrorists is not limited by legislation, but by the application of existing law and the resources available to the security services and police. These are issues of significant concern that the snooper’s charter would not have addressed, while diverting billions of pounds from focused surveillance to blanket monitoring of everyone’s internet use.”
The Home Office responded by saying the government was committed to ensuring that law enforcement and intelligence agencies had the powers they needed to protect the public and ensure national security.
“The government is continuing to look at ways of addressing this issue with communication service providers. This may involve legislation,” a spokesman added.