At BT, we understand and support the need for government to use investigatory powers to protect national security, fight serious crime and to protect people in “life at risk” situations. Communications providers clearly have a part to play in this. It’s also important that our customers can trust us to do the right thing with their personal information.
We play no part in the authorisation of requests. We don’t know why a request has been made, or the grounds for deciding that it is necessary and proportionate. Generally, we believe that this is the right approach – it’s for our democratically elected government and its agencies to decide what is needed for law enforcement or national security reasons. However we do think that we should have the opportunity to give our view on technical and practical issues relating to use of the powers.
If we’re required to assist, for example, with a warrant relating to an individual or to provide the communications data for a particular account, our role is primarily to check that the request is made in a lawful way, and that we comply with it accurately and on time. The requesting public body is responsible for making sure that any request is compliant with human rights laws. Sometimes, we might ask for clarity about the scale and scope of a requirement on us.
Since 1984, a committee comprising members of our main Board and other senior people has been responsible for governance and oversight of the assistance that we are asked to provide to government in relation to RIPA and related matters. This includes requests for interception and communications data. Its membership currently includes the Group CEO, the BT Chairman, senior technical, security and legal experts, together with a non-executive BT Director and an independent member with specialist knowledge. The oversight of this committee gives us a solid basis for considering how best to balance our legal obligations against privacy and humans rights considerations.
We also have operational teams that deal solely with the practical aspects of our obligations under the investigatory powers regime. These are supplemented by senior people with the responsibility for monitoring BT’s legal obligations under RIPA, and for making sure that we take account of human rights considerations.
Underpinning all this, we have systems and processes to check that requirements on us are properly made under the law; to ensure that the action we take is lawful; and to audit what we do on a regular basis. Following the Snowden revelations, we sought an independent view on some of our processes and some issues of legal interpretation, from Linklaters LLP, a leading law firm, and from Kieron Beal QC.
If we have any concerns about something we’re being asked to do, we carry out our own legal review – and get an expert opinion where necessary – before raising our concerns with the requesting authority.
We’ve done this on a number of occasions for both legal and operational reasons. And sometimes we’ve spoken directly with the government to voice our concerns or seek assurances. (The law – which is intended to stop criminals and terrorists knowing too much about the drive against them – means we can’t go into any more detail about these exchanges.)
We also speak regularly to government about investigatory powers, giving our opinions on the underlying regime and how it could be improved. In the last two years, we’ve had meetings with government and government officials, some at a very senior level, to discuss things like RIPA, DRIPA and section 94 of the Telecommunications Act 1984. In 2014, at our Chairman and Chief Executive’s request, we met with the then Interception of Communications Commissioner, Sir Anthony May, to talk through the scope and interpretation of some RIPA provisions. And we meet regularly with IOCCO officials to discuss a broad range of topics.
Whenever we can, we use our influence to improve the law, in line with our commitment to respect human rights. We will keep on doing this – throughout the IPB consultation process and beyond.
It’s vital that our customers feel they can trust us. They need to be confident that the authorisation and oversight regime is robust and working well. We’ll challenge the government on something we’re uncomfortable with, whether that’s a particular request or particular law.