The government will unveil its draft Investigatory Powers Bill as it tries, once again, to force internet service providers (ISPs) to retain customer web usage data for at least a year, so that the security services can monitor the web sites people have been accessing.
That will be one of the measures expected in the Bill that will be announced in the House of Commons today at 12.30pm.
However, according to press pre-briefings, as part of the safeguards Home Secretary Theresa May will insert into the Bill, local authority staff who mis-use their powers to access “internet connection records” will face jail terms of up to two years – indicating that the range of public bodies able to access the data will be far greater than originally expected.
Indeed, the government is planning not just to provide the powers for use against terrorist threats and heinous crimes such as accessing images of child abuse, but to combat a whole range of criminal offences, including allegations of benefit fraud and against people earning a living selling goods online and not declaring tax.
The briefings suggest that the police would be able to see what websites someone has visited, but not the precise pages or searches they’ve conducted. That, though, may depend on how the data is stored, and whether the ISP is obliged to clean up the data it provides to police and other public bodies when they request it.
A search on Google.co.uk, for example, will typically contain the search terms within the URL sent to Google.
While the police and other authorities will be able to apply to courts to examine the multifarious internet data they want to peruse, for intrusive surveillance, the police and security services will need to apply directly to the Home Secretary for a warrant – although it’s unclear what higher standards she or he may apply to such applications.
A “government source” told the Evening Standard: “Communications data is an essential tool for the full range of law enforcement activity, including serious offences investigated by local authorities like rogue traders and benefit fraud.
“Sometimes communications data is the only way to identify offenders, particularly where offences are committed online. But it is important that people understand that communications data is only ever used in a necessary, proportionate and accountable way.
“That is why the draft Bill contains strengthened safeguards making it clear under what circumstances local authorities can access communications data – and confirms they are banned from obtaining internet connection records.”
The new “snoopers’ charter” comes after Prime Minister David Cameron was defeated in an earlier attempt to introduce such measures. Indeed, they have been introduced and reintroduced frequently since the European Union passed the Data Retention Directive in 2006, which has since been declared illegal.
However, the Conservative Party manifesto contained a promise to reintroduce these measures should the Conservatives win the general election in May.
The tougher approach to civil liberties was presaged in a speech earlier this year, when Cameron declared: “We’ve always said, as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone. This is a failed approach.”