U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron said the government will push emergency legislation through Parliament inside a week to ensure communications companies keep records of e-mails, texts and phone calls for a year.
The new law, agreed on by the three main parties in the House of Commons, will help law-enforcement agencies to track and catch terrorists and other criminals, Cameron said today. It will enshrine powers into U.K. law that were struck down by a European Court of Justice ruling in April.
“Unless we act now, companies will no longer retain the data about who contacted who, when and where, and we will no longer be able to use this data to keep our country safe,” Cameron told reporters in his London office today at a joint press conference with Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. “This is merely about plugging holes in our existing legislation to maintain these vital capabilities.”
Without the changes, communications companies, which have asked for a legal framework on keeping data, would start deleting information such as the identity of callers and the timing of calls that could be useful to law-enforcement agencies, Cameron said. The cabinet met this morning and the government plans to push the legislation through Parliament next week.
The bill was also driven by questions from U.S. Internet companies about how existing legislation applied to them when it came to requests to see either meta-data, about the timing of communications, or their content. The U.K. is to appoint a diplomat to conduct negotiations with the U.S. about streamlining requests for data and ensuring companies operating in multiple jurisdictions have a legal basis for handing over information.
“Sometimes in the dangerous world in which we live we need our security service to listen to someone’s phone or read their e-mails,” Cameron said. “There is now a real risk that legal uncertainty will reduce companies’ willingness to comply with U.K. law even when they wish to support us.”
While the law doesn’t oblige phone companies to store recordings of customer conversations, Internet companies may be forced to let government officials read private e-mails.
Following the revelations from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden about the extent of U.S. and U.K. interception of Internet communications, companies including Google Inc. and Facebook Inc. have called for governments to set out clearly their rules for spying online.
“The government says it’s only plugging loopholes but its existing blanket surveillance practice has been found unlawful,” Shami Chakrabarti, director of campaign group Liberty, said in a statement. “We are told this is a pedophile and jihadi emergency, but the court judgment they seek to ignore was handed down over three months ago and this isn’t snooping on suspects but on everyone.”
In the U.K., Clegg’s Liberal Democrats blocked a plan by Cameron’s Conservatives to introduce what Clegg called a “snooper’s charter,” which would have required Internet service providers to store every website visited by customers for a year.
Safeguards will be included in the legislation to give some protection to personal privacy, Clegg said. They include a provision that will see the powers expire at the end of 2016, a privacy and oversight board to monitor their application and a requirement to produce an annual transparency report.
“We recognize that law enforcement access to communications data plays a critical role in public safety and that new Internet-based services have created new challenges for agencies and authorities,” Vodafone Group Plc said in a statement. “We understand why the government is now clarifying the legal position and would underline the importance of ensuring that the measures proposed are limited to those which are necessary and proportionate.”