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Privacy and government investigatory powers

Privacy and government investigatory powers

  • Investigatory powers are essential to keep society safe.
  • We have a legal obligation to comply with government requests for information about how people use our services and the content of their communications.
  • Reform of the law governing investigatory powers is overdue.
  • The draft Investigatory Powers Bill provides a foundation for open and meaningful debate.
  • Any new law must be clear, with strong legal processes to hold investigatory powers in check and to make sure they’re necessary and proportionate.

We have a duty to safeguard our customers’ data and the privacy of their communications. You can find out more about these responsibilities in our Privacy Policy. We also have a legal obligation to comply with certain UK government requests for information from us about how people use our services and the content of their communications. For example, the government (and other public bodies) can obtain information from us about who our customers call and email. They can also sometimes require us to make the content of our customers’ communications available in real-time - to find out what is being said, for example in a telephone conversation, text message or email. It’s important that the way this is handled includes checks and balances and takes account of human rights, so that any information demands that are made are genuinely necessary and proportionate to the supposed threat.

The use of these powers and their impact on people’s right to privacy is the subject of a healthy public and political debate. This was in part prompted by the allegations made by Edward Snowden, who leaked apparent US and UK security secrets, starting in 2013. Since then people have understandably questioned the role of communications providers in passing data to state agencies.

At the same time, the UN Guiding Principles have challenged companies to say more about how their actions impact people’s human rights.

Human rights are central to the exercise of government investigatory powers. We all have a right to privacy. But international and European law allow the UK to restrict privacy rights when it’s necessary and proportionate. That’s because government also has a duty to protect its citizens so they can live in a safe society.

This balance between privacy and security is a big challenge in the internet age. Different stakeholders have different views: what information should be available to government and on what basis? Does government need more or different powers to reflect technological changes? Are there enough checks and balances on the use of these powers, to protect privacy rights?

And what role should communications providers play in support of these powers?

At BT, we believe government must have investigatory powers to protect society. And we support the UK government in protecting national security, fighting crime and helping individuals in “life at risk” situations. Gavin Patterson, our CEO, is on record as saying that the right to privacy should not be absolute, and must be balanced against the requirement to protect society.

But it’s vital that there are proper controls over investigatory powers and how they’re used. These powers can be intrusive. They should only be used when clearly lawful, necessary and proportionate. And the public must have confidence that there’s a strong legal framework protecting their rights against unnecessary interference. Because privacy is even more important in an age when so much information is available about people’s lives online.

The UN Guiding Principles recognise that countries have a duty to protect human rights. It’s down to governments to strike the right balance between protecting individual privacy and protecting society. Our responsibility is to make sure our own actions respect human rights. And that we try to use our influence to make sure others do the same. When it comes to the government’s investigatory powers we have limited discretion - we have to comply with the law.

As we show later in this report, we have strong internal oversight of what we do, and we take expert advice to inform our approach. We have actively engaged with the UK government and other bodies on the law and policy in this area. We’ll keep doing this to help shape the debate about the proposed new law set out in the IPB.

We explain here our approach under the current law. However there are restrictions in particular laws, for example the Telecommunications Act 1984, the Official Secrets Act 1989 and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA), which limit what we can say about these powers. There are also government policy restrictions (for example the policy to mark certain documents with a secrecy rating, and the “need to know” practice) which limit the sharing of certain information. We accept that sometimes secrecy is needed. But we’re in favour of transparency whenever possible.