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Carr EmmaEmma Carr is Deputy Director of Big Brother Watch.  Follow Emma on Twitter.

Under the Coalition we have seen some of the most tech-friendly policies in decades. However, the Communications Data Bill poses a
substantial threat to the internet and subsequently, Britain’s social and
economic future. With concerns about its economic effect on business, warnings
from within Number 10, a haphazard consultation process and failures to
scrutinise existing powers, it’s time for this bill to be ditched – as a group of leading academic experts urged
yesterday.

The basic arguments behind the bill are now beginning to
collapse. We were told it was essential to catch criminals using internet
telephone services; it then emerged that British police currently receive more
data from Skype than any other country in the world. More than the U.S, more
than double Germany. This mirrors what we already knew about Google and Twitter
– companies do cooperate with the police. And of course, since when have laws
from Britain applied to companies based in the U.S?

Whether or not it is the same bill that Jacqui Smith proposed in
2008 (when she ruled out a central database), the wider impact could be
catastrophic. The Coalition
for a Digital Economy
warned that it would make Britain a much less
attractive place to start and grow a business, for fear of a Whitehall official
one day arriving and saying you had to change the way your business works to
provide the data the Home Office wants.

As well as a badly managed
consultation process, there has been little in-depth scrutiny of existing
legislation and powers. Research
published
by Big Brother Watch has shown how
communications data is used across police forces, and makes clear that there are
significant inconsistencies in the way that communications data is being treated. Furthermore,
it emphasises how it is almost impossible to form a measured view of how the
current system is operating, given the huge discrepancies in the way forces are
recording how they use Communications Data.


As David Davis told the Telegraph:
“It is frankly not good enough that the Government is considering introducing a
snoopers' charter without even being able to tell us what they have used
communications data for in the past – and indeed not even be able to tell us
how many times they have done so.”

Even advisers at Number 10 are concerned about what the bill
could potentially mean for the future. Ben Hammersley, an adviser to Number 10
on Tech City, has
said that
the bill could be turned from a force for good into something sinister in the future and has compared it to countries like North Korea and
other draconian states. “As a society, it would be stupid to build the
infrastructure that could be used to oppress us” he said.

This is more than a possibility – countries around the world
would jump on the opportunity to force private companies to monitor their
customers, creating data they do not need purely for the benefit of the state. The
Home Office paying companies to do this here would give legitimacy to regimes
around the world. Crossing this line will have serious repercussions
internationally.

The internet does change the way that the police work, of
course. But to claim less data is available now than in previous years and that
the police cannot get data from the likes of Skype is clearly false. There is
more data than ever, and the challenge is ensuring the police have the skills
and training to make best use of it. This is exactly the point that Bernard Hogan-Howe made when he was asked what the biggest challenge the police faced: police
technology, he said, “is more green-screen than it is iPad, I am afraid, and it does not
seem to catch criminals.”

The question is whether we pass a piece of ill-thought out
legislation and divert £2bn (plus the inevitable overspend) from front line
policing to another Whitehall IT project, or we make sure that Britain has the
best trained, best resourced cyber cops in the world. 

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