As communications evolve, the state is struggling to agree ways to keep us safe

30 June 2014

Portrait of Professor Ian Brown

by Professor Ian Brown

Professor Ian Brown was Associate Director of Oxford University's Cyber Security Centre and Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute until 2016. His work focuses on technology and public policy related to Internet privacy and security....

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Home Secretary Theresa May last week renewed her call for changes in the law so that intelligence and law enforcement agencies have more powers to scrutinise online communications, insisting there is no programme of mass surveillance being carried out by UK authorities. Her call was echoed in a speech by Keith Bristow, Director General of the National Crime Agency. These speeches clearly mark a renewed push from the government for new Internet surveillance powers. As Britons switch to new online communications tools, from phone calls and texts to apps such as Skype, WhatsApp and instant messaging, the Home Office argues that investigators face increasing difficulties in getting access to information about suspects.

While these new powers have been debated since 2006, it has proven difficult for politicians to agree their necessity or details. A bill was proposed twice but then dropped by the last government, while a draft bill was considered and rejected by a joint parliamentary committee in 2012. One difficulty is that the Home Office is reluctant to reveal details of the 'capability gap' faced by investigators, for fear of alerting criminals to methods of avoiding detection. Without these details, many policymakers have been reluctant to change the law to address changing communications patterns. And the Edward Snowden disclosures about GCHQ surveillance have made many people - including, according to Keith Bristow, his friends and family - nervous about existing government powers.

These ongoing negotiations show that it is not easy to construct a legal framework that gives police the targeted powers needed to investigate serious crime online, while reassuring the public that their privacy and other human rights are being protected. We hope that our work at the Global Cyber Security Capacity Centre can contribute to this process, engaging with all stakeholders in the debate to discuss options. It's vital that as technology evolves, the discussion between policymakers, academic experts, civil society and industry remains ongoing.

This opinion piece reflects the views of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Oxford Martin School or the University of Oxford. Any errors or omissions are those of the author.