David Cameron pledges anti-terror law for internet after Paris attacks
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Britain’s intelligence agencies should have the legal power to break into the encrypted communications of suspected terrorists to help prevent any Paris-style attacks, David Cameron proposed on Monday. The prime minister said a future Conservative government would aim to deny terrorists “safe space” to communicate online, days after a warning from the director general of MI5, Andrew Parker, that the intelligence agencies are in danger of losing the ability to monitor “dark places” on the net.
His proposed legislation, which would be introduced within the first year of Cameron’s second term in Downing Street if the Conservatives win the election, would provide a new legal framework for Britain’s GCHQ and other intelligence agencies to crack the communications of terror suspects if there was specific intelligence of an imminent attack. Political approval would also be necessary.
The prime minister outlined his plans after meeting Britain’s intelligence chiefs in the wake of the Paris attacks. He promised to ensure there would be what officials describe as “no no-go areas” on the net where terrorists can hide.
Speaking after giving a speech on the economy in Nottingham, Cameron said: “In extremis, it has been possible to read someone’s letter, to listen to someone’s call, to mobile communications … The question remains: are we going to allow a means of communications where it simply is not possible to do that? My answer to that question is: no, we must not. The first duty of any government is to keep our country and our people safe.”
But the intervention by the prime minister was given short shrift by Nick Clegg, who criticised Cameron for standing up for freedom of expression by attending the rally in Paris on Sunday before advocating limits to freedom.
In a speech to the Journalists’ Charity at the Irish embassy on Monday night, the deputy prime minister said: “The irony appears to be lost on some politicians who say in one breath that they will defend freedom of expression and then in the next advocate a huge encroachment on the freedom of all British citizens.”
The coalition clash came as senior EU officials prepared to hold discussions on Friday to allow government security services to trade information on travellers flying between European cities. Passport and identity checks are also to be reintroduced within the EU’s passport-free travel zone, according to measures being discussed urgently among governments in response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks.
Senior European Union officials dealing with security and counter-terrorism are to meet in Brussels on Friday in an attempt to prepare new policies which will then be put to an EU summit next month.
After two years of attempts to produce a coherent counter-terrorism strategy that have produced scant results, European officials are galvanised by the Paris, attacks and are racing to correct perceived gaps.
One senior Liberal Democrat said the prime minister appeared to be suggesting he would try to ban UK citizens from Snapchat, the photo-sharing service which deletes messages within seconds.
Whitehall officials declined to be drawn on whether they would try to tackle services such as Snapchat. But the Guardian has established that the prime minister has in mind the need to create a better legal framework for breaking into and monitoring the encrypted communications of terror suspects.
The prime minister said the new legislation would be needed in two areas: the collection of communications data – information about when a call is made, by whom and to whom; and the interception of calls and online communications, known as accessing content.
Interception would need to be approved by the home or foreign secretary.
Cameron said: “The powers that I believe we need, whether on communications data, or on the content of communications – I am very comfortable those are absolutely right for a modern, liberal democracy. The next government will have to legislate again in 2016. If I am prime minister, I will make sure that it is a comprehensive piece of legislation that makes sure we do not allow terrorists safe space to communicate with each other. That is the key principle: do we allow safe spaces for them to talk to each other? I say no, we don’t, and we should legislate accordingly.”
The proposals will involve reviving some elements of the draft data communications bill, known as the snooper’s charter, which was rejected by Clegg. But the prime minister believes a different legislative vehicle will be necessary, possibly amending the Regulation of Investigatory Power Act (Ripa), which is being reviewed by David Anderson QC, the independent reviewer of anti-terrorism legislation.
Fresh legislation is needed because the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (Drip), the emergency legislation pushed through last summer, expires at the end of 2016. Anderson told Radio 4 that the emergency legislation addressed some of the elements in the so-called snooper’s charter because it allowed some data powers to extend beyond the UK. He added that the counter-terrorism and security bill, which is about to be debated in the lords, makes it easier to find out which device used a particular IP address at a particular time.
Cameron’s intervention came as EU ministers prepare to press the social media industry – providers such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter – to cooperate in preventing jihadists and terrorists using the internet as recruiting sergeants and propaganda instruments inciting hatred and violence.
But the focus in Europe is on fast-tracking the pooling of air travel data within the EU, known as PNR or passenger name records, meaning that millions of EU citizens could have their personal information stored for years. The Spanish, with French and German support, are also pushing for curbs on passport-free travel within the Schengen area that covers most of the EU, though not Britain and Ireland, by reintroducing national border ID checks, moves previously rejected on the grounds that they will generate huge airport queues.
But the travel data storage is opposed by the European Parliament, while changing the Schengen rules is being resisted by the European Commission.
EU member states already supply PNR data to the Americans under a clutch of bilateral agreements and can introduce their own national travel data systems, as Britain has done.
But there is no pooling of such data between EU countries as the legislation has been blocked by the European Parliament since 2013. Laimdota Straujuma, the prime minister of Latvia which has just taken over the rotating presidency of the EU, and Donald Tusk, who chairs EU summits, are to demand an end to the parliament blockade this week in Strasbourg.
The calls for a bigger pan-European crackdown got louder last year with the ascendancy of ISIS in Syria, boosted by an estimated 3,000 Europeans joining its ranks, hundreds of whom are believed to have already returned home. The Americans are alarmed at the implications of radicalised EU nationals returning home from the Middle East and then using visa-waiver systems between Washington and the EU to board planes to the US.
On Sunday in Paris as dozens of world leaders joined hundreds of thousands on the streets, interior ministers from 11 EU countries, the US and Canada as well as top officials from the European Commission met to mull their options.
Eric Holder, the US attorney-general, complained that the Europeans were not doing enough to gain the cooperation of the social media in combatting Islamist violence, an official present said. The Americans are also demanding that they be allowed to retain travel data supplied by the Europeans for longer than the 10 years currently permitted, said another source involved in the policy-making.
Bernard Cazeneuve, the French interior minister, insisted that the rules governing the Schengen passport-free zone had to be changed.
Dimitris Avramopoulos, the EU commissioner for home affairs, resisted the demands from Spain and France for changes to the Schengen travel regime, pointing out that there is already scope for temporary introduction of document checks and the re-erection of national border controls if a government invokes emergency conditions.
Before changing the rules, said Natasha Bertaud, a commission spokeswoman, “first we want to make maximum use of the existing rules.”
Officials point out that revised rules would have made no difference in Paris as the three killed assailants were French nationals resident in the capital.
Officials involved in the discussions also say that the value of the computer data bases underpinning the Schengen system is impaired by the reluctance of national intelligence services, not least the British, to feed in information. The national services were sometimes happy to share intelligence with other countries, but loth to input the information into a pooled data base.
British intelligence, however, is slated for a key role in a new office under the Belgian government called the Syria Strategic Communication Advisory Team (SSCAT) which is “to combat terrorist propaganda and the misleading messages it conveys”, according to Sunday’s meeting.
Cazeneuve also called for the European PNR regime. “We are convinced of the irreplaceable usefulness of this tool at the European level.”
That view was dismissed by Jan Philipp Albrecht, a German Greens MEP specialising in data protection.
“EU home affairs ministers are playing into terrorists’ hands by demanding ‘big brother’ measures entailing blanket data retention without justification. This approach provides a false sense of security for citizens, at the expense of their civil liberties.” he said. “Far-reaching data collection in France would not have prevented the odious attacks in Paris. The perpetrators were already known to security authorities. Instead of creating an ineffective dragnet on all air passengers, security authorities should have been exchanging the data they already had on these suspects.”
The British are the hawks on the counter-terrorism crackdown and strong supporters of the European PNR system, having previously also called for data collection on rail and ferry travellers.
Following the 7/7 bombings in London in 2005, the British shaped an EU data retention directive, adopted the following year, allowing the capture and storage of electronic communications. But last April the European Court of Justice struck down the directive as in breach of the EU’s charter of fundamental rights.
That ruling means the collection and retention of travel data may also fall foul of the court.
“The Paris stuff means that the council [EU governments] wants faster solutions,” said Claude Moraes, the Labour MEP who chairs the parliament’s civil liberties committee. “It has to be legislation that tackles terrorism but upholds freedom. They want to move quickly. And speed is not the enemy. But we have to exercise the greatest care. We don’t want legislation that collapses. It has to be watertight.”
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