On Monday, the government is to rush through emergency legislation that will allow it to retain previously existing powers to hold metadata about the use of communication services.
The act itself appears to do exactly what the government claims it will do- that is- retain existing surveillance powers without extension.
In principle, the whole thing seems like it should be a non-event. Except that a research note published by the House of Commons Library Research Service makes the whole scenario seem a little odd.
The act is being written because of a European Court of Justice ruling rendered invalid a European Union Directive which made it legal and indeed necessary for communication service providers to retain certain data about communications made via their services- information which today goes by the term metadata. The first thing which then appears odd is that the ruling took place in the beginning of April, and the government is now passing this legislation as ‘emergency legislation’ in July. This is emergency legislation in the same way that my second year chemical biology ethics essay was emergency homework. The government seems to have literally found itself in every Undergraduate’s worst nightmare of having completely forgotten about a deadline that passed months ago and turning up to a lecture and being asked to present their work.
A pertinent memo on the ECJ ruling notes that it does not prevent member states of the EU introducing their own legislation- reflecting the somewhat subtle interaction between EU law and UK law.
The parliamentary note also stated that “Both leaders stressed that the new Bill did not, in their view, represent an extension of the state’s powers, merely a restoration of the status quo ante“. Status quo in this construct is a somewhat fluid concept, given that the powers conferred by the European Directive were only granted in 2006; and were then a relatively knee-jerk (in terms of European Legislation) reaction to the 2004 Madrid Bombings and 7/7 attack in London. Since then, according to the commons note, such evidence has been used (in the UK) in more than 90% of serious organised crime cases, although it is difficult to ascertain how key that evidence was, and it is also hard to ascertain how many of those prosecutions would or would not have gone through had surveillance powers remained at pre-2006 levels.
Lastly, but by no means least, and in the first section of the commons note, is a quote from the Prime Minister, stating: “As events in Iraq and Syria demonstrate, now is not the time to be scaling back on our ability to keep our people safe…” Given that the Syria conflict began (in part) as a result of a government using lethal force against its own civilians, that seems like a grotesquely mixed message indeed.