Ah, April Fool’s Day.  The day when you can’t believe anything you read on the internet. So I shouldn’t be worried about the news on the BBC , the Independent and Metro that the government is planning to allow the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) new powers to snoop into people’s online communications.

Right? RIGHT?

According to the BBC :-

A new law – which may be announced in the forthcoming Queen’s Speech in May – would not allow GCHQ to access the content of emails, calls or messages without a warrant.

But it would enable intelligence officers to identify who an individual or group is in contact with, how often and for how long. They would also be able to see which websites someone had visited.

Civil liberties are a core issue for the Liberal Democrats – our faith in the primacy of individuals, our belief in the right to privacy and our commitment to limited but supportive government mean we cannot do anything but oppose such measures.

We may be divided on many issues but…

This scheme is, in some ways, a resusitation of a Labour plan – the Intercept Modernisation Programme (IMP) – as the Communications Capabilities Development Programme (CCDP).

It is an improvement – the Coalition has done away with the centralised database for all this data – but instead we have a proposal to assist Communications Service Providers (CSPs) to maintain their own databases of collated data, which the ‘proper authorities’ can access.

How feasible is this? SpyBlog has an interesting analysis – which I’ll trust as I’m not a natural techie. It does appear as though much of this power is  already in the government’s hands under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. GCHQ simply needs a “catch all” Warrant or Certificate from a Secretary of State to already access phone calls, texts, e-mails and website access in real time.

However, “[t]he new legislation would extend this provision to cover a much wider field, including social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter and online video games.”

The problem lies in the fact that

It is not physically possible to get Communications Traffic Data form foreign based social media websites like FaceBook or Twitter without actually using techniques such as Deep Packet Inspection and perhaps even Man-In-The-Middle Attack SSL / proxies i.e. it requires actual Interception of the Content of these websites to do this.

The only countries which attempt to do this at the moment are repressive regimes like Iran, China, Saudi Arabia etc.

This naturally presents a worry that the legislation as presented thus far is either the result of incompetent lack of understanding of such technological issues, or deliberately misleading.

It is true that data can be used to apprehend criminals but usually “the Communications Data has been very recent and the searches have been narrowly targeted to a suspects known phones or email addresses or to a victim’s web advert etc.” Thus, the necessity of this proposal for security… is undermined.

Admittedly, these proposals have only just started to leak out – we have no idea if anything will come of them or what the final form will be.

But if they are anything like this… we have to oppose these laws. They are either misleading, unfeasible or illiberal. Or all three.

The Coalition agreement and Liberal Democrat Conference decisions should support us in this.

A mere couple of weeks ago, Liberal Democrat Conference in Gateshead passed a motion affirming our dedication to Civil Liberties.

5. b) guaranteeing that any communications data kept by service providers in accordance with the EU Data Retention Directive are kept securely by the service providers, and that they be only released to government bodies with strict and strengthened safeguards;

c) ensuring that service providers are not mandated by law to collect communications data by any method that would also provide access to content information, unless specifically authorised by a warrant;

Our MPs cannot override such motions. It seems like we have some support.

We need to make noise over this. David Davies can’t be the protector of civil liberties – it must be the Liberal Democrats. We finally have an issue we can all get behind, that should hopefully re-new our reputation, in some way, in the eyes of the public – as defenders of civil liberties, small government and individual rights.

Don’t forget


Labour will not block this. The Tories will not drop this. We must be the ones to protect Civil Liberties, for all British citizens.