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Much ado about metadata

7 January 2016

Vital crimefighting tool or unprecedented incursion? Innocuous legal update or sinister “Snooper’s Charter?” There are few pieces of legislation that have attracted such a protracted period of political wrangling than the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill.

With a tight timescale and a complex intersection of interests at stake, the issue looks set to produce one of 2016’s most significant new laws.

Returning to one of the great pieces of unfinished business from the Coalition era, the majority Conservative Government has refreshed its attempts to create a new legislative framework authorising the collection and use of internet usage information by the UK’s law enforcement agencies.

The Bill was published in draft form on 4 November, heralded with a Statement from Home Secretary Theresa May which included an explicit disavowal of the idea that this was just a new version of the controversial proposed Communications Data Bill – a previously proposed law extensively discussed but ultimately unimplemented due to Liberal Democrat dissent.

Strengthening safeguards

Describing the new Bill as a “licence to operate” for the security services, Ms May declared that it contained some of the strongest protections and safeguards available in the democratic world.

She explained that a revised version of the Bill would then be introduced in Parliament “in the Spring”, to receive “careful Parliamentary scrutiny”. It was later reported that the deadline for the Committee’s work would be set in mid-February – a timescale criticised by at least one member.

And Ms May was careful to flag the inevitability of new laws this year when she highlighted the need to replace existing legislation containing a “sunset clause” that will see it expire at the end of December 2016.

While Prime Minister David Cameron appeared, in the wake of the Paris terror attacks, to suggest a fast-track passage for the Bill, Ms May distanced herself from this by stressing the need for “proper” Parliamentary consideration.

Data protection legislation

The draft Bill has brought major press controversy, with civil liberties campaigners condemning what they see as unacceptable incursions into private life and privileged communications, and tech experts attacking the proposals as unworkable.

Articulating a mixture of philosophical and technological critiques, witnesses before the Joint Committee set up to consider the proposed legislation have aired a panoply of objections which have served to illuminate the difficulty of this policymaking task.

During a recent session of the Committee, computing expert Professor Bill Buchanan commented that there was “no Bill in the world” that could crack state-of-the-art data encryption – and went on to point out that the only alternatives would involve coercing tech firms into compromising their security by handing over the keys.

Perhaps the most high-profile intervention in the debate so far has come from Apple, which made headlines in late December when it made a “scathing” attack on the security implications of the draft Bill.

Meanwhile, internet service providers have claimed that in practical terms, filtering all traffic on their networks would be expensive and challenging, and could not be achieved until at least 2018.

The Opposition

As for the Opposition, the extent to which Labour could be prepared to oppose the Bill is unclear. It was previously reported that Shadow ministers were signalling a willingness to confront the Government if the proposals appeared too heavy-handed and lacked the right safeguards, but continued uncertainty over policy unanimity on national security issues could make for a rocky ride all round.

DeHavilland has been providing coverage of the ongoing proceedings of the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill Committee, and will continue to bring our subscribers updates on the latest developments. To find out how DeHavilland's political monitoring service can help your organisation, request a trial today.

Anna Haswell, Senior Political Analyst and Content Marketer
Anna Haswell
Senior Political Analyst and Content Marketer

As Senior Political Analyst at DeHavilland, Anna Haswell leads on financial services policy, as well as covering media issues. In her capacity as Content Marketer, she is also responsible for DeHavilland's briefings and analysis output, working across teams to ensure relevant messages reach current and prospective clients alike. She is a graduate of the University of Oxford and Goldsmiths, University of London.