Police Can Access Your Online Conversations

British PM Cameron: Police Can Access Your Online Conversations

The United Kingdom re-elected David Cameron for a second term as Prime Minister in May 2015. Unlike his previous term, he’ll have a conservative majority in Parliament. With that support, Cameron seeks to advance anti-terrorism initiatives he couldn’t enact before.

Cameron, a conservative, governed with a Liberal coalition in his first term. Last March, they vetoed his counter-terrorism proposal, citing free speech concerns. This time around, he has enough party support to enact the powers that Liberal Democrats wouldn’t allow.

If it passes, the measure will give law enforcement the ability to vet anyone’s Internet communication. Police will be able to track online conversations of people they deem “extremists.” Identified extremists will not be allowed to post social media updates without police approval.

Opponents of the move raise a crucial question: What defines an extremist?

Effort to limit ‘harmful activities’

This bill is part of Cameron’s plan to empower the National Security Council – akin to the United States National Security Agency – early in his new term. Britain’s NSC and America’s NSA share similar concerns. They center on groups such as the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The terrorist group’s ability to recruit in the west, especially online, has grown in scope and visibility.

Law enforcement will be given the power to appeal to the high court for an order to limit the “harmful activities” of extremists. Harmful activities are those which serve the purpose of overthrowing democracy, and include

  • risk of public disorder
  • risk of harassment, alarm or distress
  • creating a threat to the functioning of democracy

The proposed new powers would also allow police to close public places if they’re deemed recruiting centers. This includes mosques and other places of worship.

The Charity Commission will also receive a boost in its powers to uncover charities that funnel funds to extremist and terrorist groups.

If the proposal passes, it paves the way for a separate bill nicknamed the ‘snoopers charter’ to be introduced later in Parliament. It would revive and extend the government’s powers to retain phone records, emails and other data.

Violation of Privacy, or Necessary Safeguard?

Opposition to such carte blanche access to private online conversation isn’t just from Liberal Democrats.

The human rights watchdog, Privacy International opposes Cameron’s bill. The group called the effort an “assault on the rights of ordinary British citizens.”

Within British government, those in the Labour and Scottish National parties largely look upon the bill with disfavor.

Some fear that non-violent political activists may find themselves labeled as extremists. The British privacy advocacy group, Big Brother Watch claims there’s already a national extremism database that includes people who organized environmental discussion meetings. Such a low threshold of what’s considered extremism would render public protestors or public speakers eligible for electronic monitoring.

Opponents cite privacy concerns, but advocates want increased authority for Great Britain’s anti-terrorism forces, especially in the wake of ISIS recruitment and terrorist attacks like the one on a Paris newspaper. Where do the British people fall in the debate?

TRUSTe, a U.K. data privacy management company, released its annual Consumer Confidence Index in January 2015. Of those surveyed, 55% considered national security a greater concern than online privacy. TRUSTe gathered results before Cameron’s Parliament shifted after the election in May.

Consumers were also concerned about the way companies used and shared personal data. With Cameron’s hawkish approach to extremism, what will the survey reveal in early 2016?