UK Home Secretary Unveils Controversial New Web Surveillance Powers

AP Photo/Jens Meyer, File
AP Photo/Jens Meyer

The UK Home Secretary, Theresa May, unveiled the government’s controversial Draft Investigatory Powers Bill in Parliament today. Dubbed ‘The Snooper’s Charter’ by critics, the bill will overhaul the surveillance powers of police and security services.

Under the provisions of the draft bill, British tech companies will now be legally required to help law enforcement hack their own devices, within the limits of practicality. The bill also obliges ISPs and phone companies to keep records of visited websites for up to 12 months. Police and security services will be able to access this data without a warrant.

The draft legislation also contains some safeguards. Although the sitting Home Secretary will be able to approve spying operations, a panel of judges will be able to veto them if they deem it necessary. The bill also proposes a “double lock” system for the content of emails and telephone calls, whereby agencies will only be able to access content if they obtain approval from both the Home Secretary and a senior judge.

Police are also prohibited from accessing data on journalistic sources without the authorisation of a judge, and a former doctrine preventing the surveillance of MPs’ communications has once again been written into law.

A new position, the Interception of Communications Commissioner, has also been created by the government, to be filled by former appeals court judge Sir Stanley Burnton. The Commissioner will review the issuing of investigation warrants and how well security services and other bodies comply with the warrants. He will provide a report to the Prime Minister every six months.

However, as reported by The Guardianthe details of the bill establish that judicial approval for the interception of communications will not apply in “urgent cases” where security services claim they need to intercept within five days or less.

Speaking in the House of Commons, the Home Secretary stressed the checks and balances that the bill placed on security services. May said that the bill represented a “world-leading oversight regime” and that it was a “significant departure from the proposals of the past.” On the most controversial part of the legislation, the collection of internet users’ browsing history, May said that the powers were merely “the modern equivalent of an itemised phone bill.”

The Home Secretary’s proposals were cautiously welcomed by the official opposition, who do not appear prepared to mount a significant challenge to the bill. Andy Burnham, Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary said “it seems that both she and the government have been listening carefully to the concerns that were expressed about the original legislation presented in the last parliament.” Burnham also stressed that Parliament “cannot sit on its hands leave blind spots where the authorities can’t see.”

As with the recent expansion of surveillance powers in the U.S under the Senate’s recently-passed CISA bill, this suggests that there will be broad unity between the UK’s two major political parties on the Investigatory Powers Bill.

More concern appears to be coming from the libertarian strands of Theresa May’s own Conservative party. David Davis MP, the former Shadow Home Secretary for the Conservatives, has warned that in practice, judges would be “extremely unlikely” to overturn surveillance authorisations granted by the Home Secretary. Owen Paterson MP, the former Northern Ireland MP, also expressed concerns about the expertise of the judiciary on overseeing modern surveillance operations. “My worry is that I don’t see judges are particularly skilled in this area,” said Paterson.

Civil liberties campaigners have also attacked the draft bill. Shami Chakrabarti, director of the campaigning group Liberty, said that the bill authorised “hacking” by the govenrment, and would “turn us all into suspects.”

“After all the talk of climbdowns and safeguards, this long-awaited Bill constitutes a breath-taking attack on the internet security of every man, woman and child in our country,” Chakrabarti said. He also called on Parliamentarians to amend the bill to “strike a better balance between privacy and surveillance” as it moves through both Houses of Parliament.

Follow Allum Bokhari @LibertarianBlue, and download Milo Alert! for Android to be kept up to date on his latest articles.

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