Initial reports that the Government wants to change how private communications data can be stored and accessed have rightly caused great concern, not least amongst Liberal Democrat activists and Parliamentarians who all seek to safeguard civil liberties from erosion by state surveillance. Although details of the proposals are scant, they were rumoured to include, amongst other illiberal measures, the ‘real-time’ (i.e. without a warrant) monitoring of with whom and how often people communicated online. As such these plans would have clearly violated both Lib Dem party policy passed just weeks ago, and both the letter and spirit of the Coalition Agreement that states “We will implement a full programme of measures to reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties and roll back state intrusion.”
Lib Dem MPs, led by Julian Huppert, have called for any such plans to be subject to proper Parliamentary scrutiny; it now appears that this will be the case, with Deputy Prime Minister acknowledging ‘draft clauses’ will be published at the time of the Queen’s Speech, to be followed by Parliamentary hearings.
This is welcome, but there remain serious concerns about extending the State’s power to monitor online communications. Reassurances that the ‘content’ of such messages could still only be accessed with a warrant are unlikely to prove adequate if other data regarding such messages is stored and accessed without appropriate safeguards and in real-time.
In addition to the technical aspects of any reform, an important matter of liberal principle arises. Any furthering of the already-extensive powers to interrogate peoples’ communication, especially in the absence of proper oversight, would constitute an ineffective and illiberal intrusion of our civil liberties and as such are unacceptable to Liberal Democrats and the wider public. The party in united on this; we cannot support measures that violate this principle, and must seek to implement the Coalition Agreement’s strengthening of the safeguards to our civil liberties rather than seek to dilute them.