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Switch it off and on again: How peers failed to sneak Snoopers' Charter into terror bill

Lord 'I am not a tweeter' King fears Snapchat jihadists

By Kelly Fiveash, 27 Jan 2015

Analysis Bungling peers failed to thrust Theresa May's widely discredited Snoopers' Charter into the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill on Monday – but they did an excellent job of highlighting their ignorance about technology.

A bewildered Lord King of Bridgwater trotted out the usual alarmist guff that Britain faced a grave and growing threat from terrorists, before adding that the law needed an overhaul to deal with access to communications data such as Snapchat and WhatsApp.

Inevitably, the recent Paris atrocities were opportunistically used by the Tory peer to ram his point across. He complained that May's draft Communications Data Bill had been mothballed after it was published two-and-a-half years ago.

As The Register has previously reported, the proposed law was torpedoed by politicos, following scrutiny of the bill by a joint select committee.

However, Lord King argued yesterday that it had been a mistake for the draft bill to have been shelved.

"It might be thought that the problem has gone away but, of course, the opposite is the case," he said, before adding:

Before Paris and Belgium, the government raised the threat level to severe. Intelligence showed what might be coming. We could easily have been Paris or Belgium. Thankfully, so far we have not been exposed in the same way, except for the tragedy of Fusilier Rigby, but it is a very brave man indeed who says that at the present time we would not be.

But the Tory peer then went on to expose himself as a dunderhead by admitting he was clueless about the apps and websites that are widely used by Brits. Nonetheless, Lord King believed he could push for legislation without having the necessary knowledge to understand the implications on our privacy rights that such planned amendments to the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill posed.

He then dropped this clanger:

It is interesting that, at the moment, we are facing this challenge on the basis of legislation that is 15 years old. It is worth remembering that this is the 25th anniversary of the internet even being thought of.

We will always have Paris

King then returned to May's "who, where, when" script for justifying access to the communications data of every British citizen.

It includes the use of things that not all your Lordships – that certainly includes me – are masters of. I am not a tweeter. We have Facebook and Twitter. Somebody tried to explain WhatsApp to me; somebody else tried to explain Snapchat. I do not know about them, but it is absolutely clear that the terrorists and jihadists do.

He claimed that ISIL had advanced across Syria and into Iraq by using either WhatsApp or Snapchat, and it was for this reason that spooks needed more powers to monitor such apps. King said:

If there was an attack here like the one in Paris, and it became apparent that if the powers of the agencies had been kept up to date it could have been prevented, huge criticism of Parliament would follow – and rightly so.

However, as reported in the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks, spooks had been tracking the Charlie Hebdo murderers months before their assault on the satirical magazine's office took place. But the trail went cold at the behest of France's intelligence services.

It was then the turn of former Met police commissioner Lord Blair to attempt to lobby for a law that would force ISPs to collect and store data taken from their subscribers' online traffic for 12 months and hand this over to the government without a warrant.

"The police and the security services are not asking for new powers. Rather, they are asking for the retention of what they already have but are now losing," he told the House.

"They need the ability to determine, in specified circumstances, which telephone or other device has been used where, when, and to communicate with whom. This is an investigative tool of equal significance to DNA and fingerprinting, but changing technology is eroding that ability."

Blair added:

The situation is that mobile telephones and the internet are merging. All the different apps for phones mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord King, along with all the other services, are increasingly being used across the internet via something I now know more about than I ever wanted to – a system known as VoIP, the Voice over Internet protocol.

This makes all those transmissions untraceable. I will not specify them, but they are being used in methodologies that members of this House will be using most days. They are already changing things and we are losing our technological edge on terrorists and criminals.

The peer then claimed that the lives of vulnerable young people, such as self-harm victims, could be lost because police soon won't have the capabilities to access the location of a child's phone.

Such dragnet surveillance of Brits' online activity was necessary, Blair argued, to prevent serious crime. He also said that Blighty's spies were "not snoopers but lifesavers."

Lord West then ran with Blair's theme by claiming "There is much emotive claptrap using words such as 'snooper'."

He added: "The data we are looking at here are not the contents of the letter, but what I would call the outside of the envelope. To be quite honest, the people we should be really worried about looking inside the envelope are various private companies, firms and ne’er-do-wells – not the government."

The peer failed to spot the flaw in such an argument, however, given that the Snoopers' Charter relies so heavily on forcing private firms to slurp and store the communications data that can then subsequently be tapped into by police and g-men.

West ended his lobbying for more online surveillance powers by suggesting that legislation be passed swiftly before the end of this Parliament.

Later in the debate, Lord King once again exposed his weak understanding of the powers he had been lobbying for by offering up this nugget:

I do not begin to understand the dark cloud, but those are the threats that we may now be facing.

The Conservative peer eventually withdrew the amendments to the Counter-Terror and Security Bill, however he said he would be pushing for a vote in the Lords next week when the proposed law hits the report stage.

Yesterday's effort to hastily sneak a Snoopers' Charter into legislation may have failed, but demands for those powers will not go away. And – regardless of whether the next government is formed by the Tories or the Labour Party (with or without the Liberal Democrats as a Coalition partner) – the zombie Communications Data Bill will rise again. ®

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