UK Politics

Communications Data Bill: Terrorism expert defends access to information

Computer keyboard and mouse

Getting hold of basic details about the communications of criminal suspects is vital to successful prosecutions, a top counter-terrorism expert has said.

Lord Carlile said controversial government proposals to monitor all Britons' online activity, as well as phone calls, to help tackle security threats was in the public interest.

The Lib Dem peer also rejected claims criminals would easily avoid detection.

Many were not "half as clever as you imagine", he told Parliament.

Under the government's plans, currently being scrutinised by Parliament, service providers will have to store details of internet use in the UK for a year to allow police and intelligence services to access it where appropriate.

Records will include people's activity on social network sites, webmail, internet phone calls and online gaming.

Ministers argue that law enforcement agencies need to keep pace with the changing technology used by offenders, but critics have called the proposals an increase in state power and "snooper's charter".

'Important evidence'

Civil liberties campaigners and some MPs have raised concerns about the scope of the bill and want to see existing judicial processes applying to those seeking information strengthened rather than new powers granted.

And the information commissioner Christopher Graham has suggested those most likely to be caught under the proposed new system are "incompetent criminals and accidental anarchists" and the "really scary people" will remain undetected.

But Lord Carlile, the official reviewer of terrorism legislation between 2001 and 2011, told a committee of MPs and peers established to review the proposals that many offenders were "not half as clever as you imagine".

The Lib Dem peer, a leading criminal barrister, told the committee that offenders often made traceable phone calls and text messages and the police often only had to open up their phones and "start scrolling" to find them.

He said he was strongly opposed to the authorities having routine access to the content of messages and phone calls, but he said this would not happen under the new law unless strict procedures were followed.

And he cited three cases he was involved in as a lawyer where successful convictions would not have been secured if the police had not been able to obtain basic information about phone calls.

"Police should be able to know who was telephoning whom and for how long and what time. It is used every single day in the courts up and down the land.

"Prosecutions would be brought to their knees if this was not possible."

Criticism of the proposals was largely "ill-informed and inaccurate", he suggested, and Parliament had to be "brave enough" to press ahead with the plans, which were "relatively harmless" and broadly in the public interest.

"I think the term snooper's charter is a complete traducement of this bill," he said. "I think this is an opportunity to tidy up and modernise the law in relations to communications data."

The plans, he added, were "very similar" to those which he had been asked to consider by the Labour government in 2007.

"Successive governments have seen the necessity of introducing this kind of legislation. It is not really a party political issue."

Also giving evidence on Wednesday, Jamie Bartlett, from the think tank Demos, said suggestions the bill would give the state unfettered access to people's online activity was a "mischaracterisation".

Firms, he added, were already tracking people online in a way that was far more "intrusive" than anything proposed in the bill.

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