There has been an assortment of headlines running from ‘snoopers charter’ to a ‘drama out of a non-existent crisis’. While the ‘privacy versus security’ discussion could be had until the cows come home, it’s important to understand what this new law is, why we have it, and what it means for you.
What’s it all about, and why has it happened?
Before we go into the legal part, let’s get our facts straight. Following the Queen’s Speech in May 2015, Home Secretary Theresa May is set to revive the Draft Communications Data Bill that was blocked by Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats last year. The new law permits telecom service providers to retain communications data, and for certain government agencies to access that information under strictly-defined circumstances.
The Government was forced to act due to a decision from the European Court in April which struck down an EU Directive (a legal act of the European Union that requires a member state such as the UK to achieve a particular result, but leaving the means and ways of achieving it up to them).
The Directive, which was essentially scrapped by the European Court, stated that internet and phone companies were required to retain communications data for 12 months. As a result, this sent the UK into a bit of a panic; with politicians concerned that the telecom providers could deliberately opt out of retaining this information in an attempt to provide greater privacy for their clients.
Considering that communications data provides vital evidence in approximately 95% of criminal trials for serious offences, the importance of the new legislation becomes immediately apparent.
How is it justified?
Although there’s been a fair amount of backlash against the move from civil liberties campaigners, their main argument is not against this specific piece of legislation but against the monitoring of communications in general. In a recent press conference Prime Minister, David Cameron, claimed the legislation is required due to “real and credible threats to our security from serious organised crime, from the activity of paedophiles, from the collapse of Syria, the growth of Isis in Iraq and al Shabab in East Africa”. Moreover, the Prime Minister has stated that some telecom companies are refusing to cooperate with the UK if the laws are not clarified.
What is the legislation, and what does it mean for me?
The new data laws will be aimed at companies that provide us with telephone and Internet communications, creating a legal obligation for them to retain ‘communications data’ on their customers.
Will the Government be listening to my calls?
Before you develop a nervous twitch whenever your phone rings, and start speaking in code, it’s worth pointing out that the new laws DON’T allow the government to listen in to your calls. The new data laws cover basic information such as call time, call duration and the number called, but not the content of the communications. Listening in to calls is regulated by a separate piece of legislation (RIPA) which requires the home secretary to approve and sign surveillance warrants – so next time your partner calls, asking you to pick up some milk on your way home, you can be fairly certain that no-one is listening in!
Is this going to fire up all the privacy discussions again?
Quite probably. Since Edward Snowden blew the lid on the levels of mass surveillance carried out by the US National Security Agency (NSA) it’s been a pretty hot topic. The Open Rights Group has been asking providers to destroy their data following the ruling, stating that the threat of terrorism doesn’t have enough legal basis as a justification, stating that this creates a ‘dangerous precedent’ where the government re-legislates if it disagrees with a European Court decision.
If you’re a communications provider, don’t worry. It simply clarifies the old law, ensuring you’re protected from any legal action following the EC ruling.
If you’re an individual, there’s no reason for you to worry either; unless you’re running an international drug cartel or providing support to a terrorist cell, the new law will make no difference to you.
The contents of this article are intended solely for information purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion in any specific facts or circumstances.
Jonathan graduated in LLB law from the University of the West of England in 2012. He then completed the Legal Practice Course in 2013 before working with some of Southampton’s top law firms.