The internet use and social media activity of every person in Britain will be made available to councils, the taxman and numerous other public bodies in new spy laws published this week.
The new powers in the Investigatory Powers Bill are intended primarily to assist the police and security services pursuing suspected terrorists and serious criminals, reports The Daily Telegraph. They will require that technology firms maintain records for 12 months of websites and apps people have used, including details of when they accessed them.
In the absence of a warrant investigators will not be able to see the pages people viewed or searches they conducted while using the websites and apps, or indeed the content of any messages.
The definition of policing and security is, however, quite wide with the National Crime Agency being just one of a reported total of 38 bodies to be entitled to access the electronic records for the purpose of “detecting or preventing crime”. Others include the Financial Conduct Authority, HM Revenue & Customs, the Health and Safety Executive and the Department for Work and Pensions.
Although the government claims this will all be “limited, targeted and strictly controlled”, with oversight from a new Investigatory Powers Commissioner, concern has been expressed.
David Davis, the senior Tory MP and civil liberties campaigner, warned that wider access to information was potentially “dangerous” and open to abuse, saying:
“It is a serious amount of information. I don’t think that the British public want councils to have access to this.”
In an attempt to address such concerns – and the fact that councils were granted access to private communications data on 2,110 occasions last year, more than GCHQ and MI6 combined – a new offence aimed at deterring abuse of the powers will be enforced with significant fines and councils will be required to have their information requests signed off by a magistrate.
A particularly contentious element of the new laws may yet derail the legislation, attracting cross-party opposition from Mr. Davis and Labour MP Keir Starmer, the Shadow Home Affairs Minister.
As it stands government ministers will have the power to give their initial approval to interception warrants without reference to judges, as Home Secretary Theresa May wants, but she is now considering a two stage approval. Her new proposal will mean ministers are responsible for the initial decision to sign off surveillance warrants, which is then approved by a senior judge.
Mr Davis has said only full judicial authorisation will see the bill through both the Commons and the Lords.
Mrs May enlisted the most egregious example of internet abuse in order to support her argument, telling the BBC:
“It’s precisely this area of catching paedophiles and dealing with child abuse that is precisely one of the reasons why we want this ability to look at these internet connection records.”