Online spying laws will help keep public safe: Cameron

British govt to unveil proposals to crack down on terror threats even as critics brand the Bill 'snooper's charter'

LONDON • Britain's government will unveil proposals for new Internet spying laws to keep pace with the digital age and crack down on terror threats, but critics have branded it the "snooper's charter".

The plans are expected to grant intelligence agencies new powers to request Internet communications data, including on messages sent through social media applications such as Facebook and WhatsApp.

"This would be one of the most important pieces of legislation during this Parliament because it goes absolutely to the heart of the government's duty to keep the British public safe," Prime Minister David Cameron told Cabinet colleagues on Tuesday.

The draft legislation, known as the Investigatory Powers Bill and scheduled to be presented to Parliament yesterday, will inevitably be controversial, with critics already calling it the "snoopers' charter".

It replaces a tougher draft that was killed in 2013 by the Liberal Democrats, then the coalition partner of the Conservatives.

This time, the majority Conservative government is more cautious, seeking parliamentary and public debate and consultation before coming up with a final Bill expected in the spring. And the government is already suggesting that it has heard critics and will include judicial oversight for surveillance warrants.

The move comes as concerns mount that extremists are increasingly recruiting and planning attacks online, and amid intelligence warnings that Britain is under greater threat of attack.

The Bill is expected to require communications companies to keep customer data for at least 12 months and to allow the government, with a warrant, to look at which Internet domains people visit and when. To view the content of searches and e-mail, a further warrant would be required.

The Bill is also expected to propose a two-tier oversight system for surveillance warrants - approval by the Home or Foreign Secretary, as required now, plus agreement by a new oversight committee of judges with top-secret clearances.

Civil liberties groups worry that the Bill's powers will lack sufficient oversight and be used unnecessarily, and could lead to the kind of blanket surveillance revealed by US whistle-blower Edward Snowden.

"The safeguards we're calling for - judicial sign-off on spying requests, public disclosure of powers, targeted surveillance - are nothing extreme," civil rights group Liberty said on its website.

British officials say it was partly due to concerns raised by Snowden that they have updated surveillance legislation, and also because current laws date as far back as 1995, before the rise of the Internet.

The draft Bill will be scrutinised by a committee of lawmakers, allowing changes to be made before it is formally debated by Parliament.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 05, 2015, with the headline 'Online spying laws will help keep public safe: Cameron'. Print Edition | Subscribe