The Draft Communications Data Bill, also known in the media as the “Snoopers’ Charter” has been proposed by the Government as a means of being able to access all data sources and recipients that cross the internet in the UK. There is a lot of controversy around the issue. In this article we’ll look at what it may mean to the general public and computer users.

The UK Parliament is known for “yah-boo politics”. Much of what we hear is opinions about this, generally getting the impression that some policeman is going to be reading our fruity text messages to our mistresses. This is not the case.

Records are already kept by communications companies as to who has sent an email to whom – but not the contents. Telephone records – again, from who to whom but not the contents – can already be accessed. If a policeman was interested in your extramarital shenanigans he would be able to find that you have sent 10 emails to your mistress and spent an hour on the phone to her today already!

According to The Guardian such leads can currently only be requested by the police within 30 days of an email being sent / phone call being made and this must be renewed by court order every month. Such data is already freely accessible to the spy agencies such as GCHQ and MI5 though this data is not admissible in Court. What would happen is that 468 authorities, including the NHS, police and your council, will be able to access this data for law enforcement purposes.

In short, people might have their phone calls tracked for benefit fraud and minor crime. Under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, local councils can already follow you and photograph you, for example if you have put your children in the wrong school by falsely claiming to live in its catchment area (and people have been arrested for this). Now they can work out where you were when you phoned your mother at 10 at night, which would add to the evidence that you weren’t living where you said you were.

New to the Bill is that the authorities can work out who was using the internet and where. They can get data on who had a specific IP address at a given time. Further, they would have the right to ask foreign ISP’s for the same. They claim that this is to work out who has been on instant messaging, for example, with an al Quaeda leader in Pakistan. However, given the new agencies getting involved in this, such data could be garnered about our personal habits which are not connected to terrorism by a local council.

In drafting the Bill the government claimed that 25% of electronic data passed between individuals cannot be accessed by the authorities currently. The Parliamentary Draft Communications Data Bill Joint Committee looked into this figure and didn’t like it. Essentially it concluded that much of this “data gap” was within reach under existing legislation but the authorities didn’t have the training or capacity to use it! Many feel that the Bill would be a gross infringement of civil liberties. No one is perfect yet for relatively minor infractions we might be able to be snooped on. The Liberal Democrats have come out against it but Labour and the Tories may gang up on them when the Bill goes through Parliament – forcing it through.

The authorities have been known to abuse their powers. In one famous incident, a 92 year old member of the Labour Party was arrested under Terrorism legislation for heckling Tony Blair at a Labour Conference. With the ability to check almost anything we do in electronic communications, the scope for abuse is huge. Why does the local fire brigade or NHS need to be able to check our phone records?

The case has been brought forward that in being able to snoop, so the government can save money against fraud. The Parliamentary Join Committee was blunt in its response to this, stating “the estimated net benefit figure is fanciful and misleading. It ought not to be used to influence Parliament in deciding on the relative advantages and disadvantages of this legislation.”

For many people, it is claimed we have nothing to fear. If you live your life rigidly within the letter of the law (and 15 new laws a year) you have nothing to fear unless someone who is less scrupulous is contacting you (and you are connected to them via ISP records).

The chief issue is of ever more authorities being able to get ever more data for ever more reasons. We are not a free country by comparison to many other countries – notably Germany which has stringent privacy laws put in place after the Nazi regime – and our lives are being watched ever more closely. Why? Because of a controversial war against terrorists. It is for our consciences to decide whether this is a good thing or not. I for one don’t walk through the streets of Weymouth wondering if a bomb set by a benefits scrounging religious fruitcake is going to go off!