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Prime minister David Cameron has cited TV crime dramas that use mobile phone data to solve crime as justification for the UK’s mass surveillance spying programmes and the creation of the so-called Snoopers' Charter.
In a session held by the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy on Thursday, Cameron said he believes that the general public is comfortable with the work of spy agencies, in spite of the revelations from Edward Snowden last summer.
“I think the public reaction, as I judge it, has not been one of shock horror, but one of 'intelligence agencies carry out intelligence work, good',” he said. “However, I think more needs to be done to explain why communications data is so important.”
Cameron said the ability for police and security agencies to access communications data is vital for fighting crime and protecting the nation, and cited the use of such methods in TV shows as justification.
“In most of the serious crimes [such as] child abduction, communications data, [including] who called who and when, and where was the telephone at the time – not the content, but the communications data – is absolutely vital,” he said.
“I love watching crime dramas on the television. There’s hardly a crime drama where a crime is solved without using the data of a mobile communications device. That’s not about the content.”
He went on to say that this difference between accessing communications data – such as the time messages were sent or their location – and the content of messages, needs to be the key point around which any new legislation is built.
“If we don’t modernise the practice and modernise the law, over time we will have the communications data to solve these horrible crimes on a shrinking proportion of the total use of devices and that is a real problem for keeping people safe,” he said.
He said the importance of this should be used to help create a new legal framework for data gathering, suggesting that the Snoopers' Charter is still very much on the agenda.
“We need, perhaps at the start of the next parliament, to build a cross-party case for sensible legislation to deal with this issue,” he said. “I think it is possible but it will take a lot of work by politicians across parties to take civil liberty concerns seriously but get them in proportion so we can then make some progress.”
However, members of Cameron’s own party jumped on his comments to ridicule the prime minister for citing TV shows as a justification for creating controversial new laws.
Tory MP David Davis said: “Sadly, you can’t derive policy from watching fictional crime dramas on TV. Policy should be made using hard evidence, strong arguments and proper data, not the exploits of fictional crime fighters."
Civil liberties group Big Brother Watch said that any future laws around data gathering needed to be properly debated.
"The proposed Snoopers' Charter would have every citizen under surveillance in a way that the Home Office now acknowledges went too far and in large parts was technically unworkable,” it said in a statement.
"It is clear that the public have no idea about the true scale of surveillance already going on and that's why the entire legal framework for surveillance needs reviewing and reforming wholesale.”
The issue comes in the same week that the European Commission threatened the UK with possible legal action in light of its Tempora cable-tapping spy programme. The government has always maintained all its work was carried out legally.
Dan Worth is the news editor for V3 having first joined the site as a reporter in November 2009. He specialises in a raft of areas including fixed and mobile telecoms, data protection, social media and government IT. Before joining V3 Dan covered communications technology, data handling and resilience in the emergency services sector on the BAPCO Journal.