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Surveillance legislation: Big Bother?

Barely two weeks after what would have been the 111th birthday of George Orwell, we learn that controversial new legislation is to be brought in that could require telephone and internet companies to record phone calls and correspondence.

It is difficult to read the headlines without recalling – whether having read the novel, seen the film or purely from a kind of folk memory – the passages in Orwell’s 1984 in which the ever-present Big Brother regards the populace from the obligatory screen in each house. How close does the new legislation come to replicating Orwell’s chilly predictions – and what is the likely impact in the courts?

The Guardian reports that the law – which has cross-party support – will aim to “reinforce the powers of security services to requite internet and phone companies to keep records of their customers’ emails and calls.” The emergency legislation is doubtless prompted by concerns regarding the radicalisation of UK citizens in the wake of the Syrian conflict, and potential threats to national security.

Details are yet to be released, but are expected to include mildly reassuring promises of a Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (closely resembling a US body with the same remit), and annual reports designed to provide transparency over how the powers have been used.

Crucially, the content of calls will not be recorded and logged – only details of location, date and phone numbers. The legislation is to replace existing laws which were recently ruled by the European Court of Justice to invade the privacy of the individual, with government saying they were left with no option but the speedy introduction of fresh legislation: “It is the first duty of government,” said David Cameron, “To protect our national security, and to act quickly when that security is compromised.”

In the wake of the announcement there has been considerable disquiet, with bothered Labour back-bencher Tom Watson saying the new laws were being ‘railroaded’ through Parliament. Debate is likely to continue, and there may yet be challenges to the implementation of the legislation – but in the meantime, the move serves to emphasise how the logging and gathering of data is fast becoming a mainstay of national security measures.

There is no doubt that increasing numbers of court cases are reliant on the use of data of this kind as key evidence: from terrorism legislation to cyber-crime and from fraud to professional negligence claims, this century’s heavy dependence on smartphone, email and social media means phone and email records are frequently scoured for relevant information.

Professional litigation support services such as Legastat have responded by helping chambers and firms to access the latest IT innovations, such as software enabling the fast and accurate assimilation, cataloguing and redacting of huge amounts of information. The latest legislative developments will affirm what most will have long suspected: that no lawyer can afford to develop a practice which fails to keep pace with the speed of developments in IT – including in legal tech. Those keen to fully exploit these developments should contact Legastat for further advice – because when it comes to providing a twenty-first century service, Big Brother might not be watching, but the client certainly is. 

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