The Draft Communications Data Bill was laid before Parliament on 14th June 2012. The Bill provides an updated framework for ensuring the availability of communications data and its obtaining by public authorities. It will replace the communications data provisions within the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA).
The most controversial aspects of the Bill will enact proposals, announced in the Queen’s Speech in May, which will require Internet firms to give the Police, the Serious and Organised Crime Agency, the Intelligence Agencies and HM Revenue and Customs access to a wider range of communications data on demand and, in some cases, in real time. The Home Office says that they are updating the law “in terms of social media and new devices”. Without action they say that there is a growing risk that crimes enabled by email and the Internet will go undetected and unpunished. However civil liberties groups, as well as Internet Service Providers have voiced concerns about the Bill from a privacy and technical perspective. See my previous blog entry for a discussion about these concerns.
But what effect will the new Bill have on local authorities?
The Bill will replace Part 1 Chapter 2 of RIPA. Sections 21 to 25 of RIPA (and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (Communications Data) Order 2010 (SI 2010/480)) currently set out who can access what type of communications data and for what purposes. This includes the police and security services as well as councils, government departments and various quangos. RIPA restricts access to the different types of communications data depending on the nature of the body requesting it and the reason for doing so.
The definition of “communications data” includes information relating to the use of a communications service (e.g telephone, internet and postal service) but does not include the contents of the communication itself. Such data is broadly split into three categories: “traffic data” i.e. where a communication was made from, to whom and when; “service data” i.e. the use made of the service by any person e.g. itemised telephone records; “subscriber data” i.e. any other information that is held or obtained by an operator on a person they provide a service to.
Some public bodies already get access to all types of communications data e.g. police, security service, ambulance service, customs and excise. Local authorities are restricted to subscriber and service use data and even then only where it is necessary for the purpose of preventing or detecting crime or preventing disorder.
At present access to communications data is done on a system of self authorisation. There are forms to complete ((signed by a senior officer) and tests of necessity and proportionality to satisfy. Notices have to be served on the service provider requesting the data.
The new Bill will broadly replicate the current system for accessing communications data by local authorities. There is no provision to widen the scope of the information available to councils or the grounds for doing so (unlike the police and law enforcement agencies mentioned above). However the Bill does replicate the changes to the local authority RIPA regime to be made by Protection of Freedoms Act 2012. In the future all local authority surveillance activity under RIPA, including a request for communications data (however minor), will have to be approved by a Magistrate. (See my earlier Blog Post for more detail about the 2012 Act.)
The Bill also implements a recommendation in the RIPA Review published by the Home Office on 26th January 2011. This stated that the range of non-RIPA legislative frameworks by which communications data can in principle be acquired from Communication Service Providers “should be streamlined to ensure that as far as possible RIPA is the only mechanism by which communications data can be acquired.”
Clause 24 introduces Schedule 2 to the Bill which repeals certain general information powers so far as they enable public authorities to secure the disclosure by a telecommunications operator of communications data without the consent of the operator. This includes powers under the Trade Descriptions Act 1968, Environmental Protection Act 1990, Social Security Administration Act 1992 and the Enterprise Act 2002. Local authority officers in environmental health, trading standards and benefit fraud departments, who may not be have been using RIPA to gain access to communications data previously, will now need to get to grips with a new regime.
The Communications Data Bill will be subject to scrutiny by a joint parliamentary committee before the effort to bring the measures through Parliament and into law begins in earnest. This comes on top of other recently announced changes to the criteria for local authority to authorise Directed Surveillance under Part 2 of RIPA. The Home Office will have to issue a new code of practice and standard forms which Investigating Officers and their legal advisers will have to familiarise themselves with.