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Police to see new limits on surveillance powers


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It followed a legal challenge brought by Labour deputy leader Tom Watson, originally with backing of Tory MP David Davis before he became Brexit Secretary.

Police to see new limits on surveillance powers

Ministers have unveiled new curbs on police surveillance powers in a bid to bring the British regime into line with EU law.

Requests by law enforcement agencies and other public bodies to obtain details relating to phone calls, emails and text messages will be restricted to "serious" crime investigations.

The plans will also see the introduction of a new independent body to oversee and authorise demands - a significant shift from the current situation in which they are approved internally by senior personnel.

Communications data covers information such as who sent a message or made a phone call, when and where - but not the content.

The government announced the proposed changes on Thursday in response to a judgment on the UK's approach by the European Court of Justice.

It followed a legal challenge brought by Labour deputy leader Tom Watson, originally with the backing of Tory MP David Davis before he became Brexit Secretary.

In a ruling in December judges found that "general and indiscriminate" retention of communications data was unlawful.

They also set out a number of requirements that need to be in place for a regime to be considered compliant with EU law.

The government emphasised it does not consider the existing data retention system to be "general and indiscriminate".

But it acknowledged that some aspects of the current regime do not satisfy the requirements of the ECJ judgment.

A Home Office consultation document details a number of proposed changes, including:

  • The introduction for the first time of independent authorisation of communications data requests
  • Restricting the use of communications data to investigations into serious crime, with a new definition of cases that meet this threshold
  • Additional safeguards which must be taken into account before a notice requiring an operator to store communications data can be issued.

In a key change, requests from public authorities including police forces, immigration enforcement and HMRC will have to be cleared by a new body to be established under the Investigatory Powers Commissioner.

Allowances will be made for requests to be signed off internally in urgent cases.

The changes do not apply to the retention or acquisition of data for national security purposes and there will be no impact on the activities of GCHQ, MI5 and MI6.

In another measure, the government is proposing a definition of "serious crime" for the purposes of retaining or acquiring communications data.

The category includes: investigations into all offences for which an adult is capable of being sentenced to six months or more in prison; any offence involving violence; any crime which involves a large number of people "acting in pursuit of a common purpose"; or any offence involving a significant financial gain.

Currently in the Investigatory Powers Act, serious crime is generally defined as applying to conduct that can result in a jail term of at least three years.

The consultation document said the existing threshold is high and excludes a wide range of offences where it would be appropriate to be able to acquire communications data.

Security Minister Ben Wallace said the importance of communications data "cannot be overstated".

He said: "For example, it is often the only way to identify paedophiles involved in online child abuse and can be used to identify where and when these horrendous crimes have taken place.

"As this is an issue of public importance, we consider it important to consult on our proposed changes to inform our legislative response and subsequent Parliamentary debate."

Assistant Chief Constable Richard Berry, National Police Chiefs Council lead for communications data, said: "In recent years we have seen over 700,000 items of communications data acquired annually.

"It is vital that our capacity to do so remains intact and fit for the future, while ensuring there is trust and confidence in what we do."

Mr Watson claimed the Government had made "significant concessions".

He said: "The current legislation fails to protect people's fundamental rights or respect the rule of law. That's what my legal challenge proved."

The consultation will run for seven weeks.

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Only criminals and terrorists have anything to fear front surveillance.

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It doesn't sound like much of a 'curb'. If in essence the proposals are saying that any crime which could result in a sentence of a least 6 months. That's 30 months less that present.


Enhanced powers don't necessarily scare me, I'm not going to become one of those foil hat wearers any time soon. I'm not sure what terrorists or hardened criminals are going to be scared off by offences which lie between the '6 month - 3 year' range. I guess it could help us track the shoplifter who steals a wheel of cheese when we observe his digital footprint, I'm sure the cost of the investigations will justify that..



Those 700,000 data catalogues are going to get a whole lot bigger.

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