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May: Surveillance Bill Drops ‘Contentious’ Aspects

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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Critics insist the bill must require independent judicial approval for the collection of Internet browsing records

The controversial Investigatory Powers Bill, set to be introduced on Wednesday, has dropped some of the more “contentious” aspects of its 2012 predecessor, the infamous “snoopers’ charter“, according to Home Secretary Theresa May.

However, May didn’t comment on whether the bill would require the collection of detailed records to be approved by an independent judge, which opponents said is essential for preventing indiscriminate surveillance.

‘Strong’ authorisation

Online surveillance © - Fotolia.comThe bill will no longer require communications service providers to store Internet traffic from companies abroad, and includes “strong” warrant authorisation requirements for authorities wanting to gain access to a user’s detailed Internet browsing history, May said on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show.

“It doesn’t have some of the more contentious powers that were in that (2012) bill,” she noted. “So, for example we won’t be requiring communication service providers from in the UK to store third-party data, we won’t be making the same requirements in relation to data retention on overseas CSPs. And crucially, we will not be giving powers to go through people’s browsing history… There will be in this bill strong oversight and authorisation arrangements.”

However, May declined to detail what the “world-leading oversight arrangements” included in the bill might be, saying more details would be given on Wednesday, when the bill is to be presented in Parliament in draft form.

Critics have said that warrants allowing police and other government authorities to access users’ detailed browsing records should be approved by independent judges, rather than by law-enforcement authorities or by a political figure such as the Home Secretary.

Encryption restrictions

Eye spy surveillance security, biometric retina iris © agsandrew ShutterstockMay said the government has also modified its previous position on restricting companies from encrypting Internet-based materials, but didn’t give details.

“Encryption is important for people to be able to keep themselves safe when they are dealing with these modern communications in the digital age but we will be setting out the current position, which does enable the authorities with proper authorisation to issue warrants,” May told the programme.

The bill, intended to update investigators powers for the Internet age, is expected to require communications companies such as Internet service providers to retain records of users’ online activities for a year, according to industry analysts.

Civil liberties campaigners have warned that unless sufficient safeguards are in place, this data could be indiscriminately turned over to police and government authorities in a form of mass surveillance, such as was described in the secret NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden.

‘Spin’

Conservative MP and civil liberties campaigner David Davis called May’s comments “welcome recognition” of the failings of previous proposals, but he and former Liberal Democrat leader Lord Ashdown commented that the bill would be fatally flawed if it doesn’t include the judicial authorisation of warrants.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of civil rights group Liberty, agreed that judicial authorisation of warrants is the essential safeguard required of the bill, and called May’s other comments mere “spin”.

“Where is the judicial sign-off before our private communications can be collected, hacked and tapped?” she said. “Where is the move back to targeted surveillance and away from the blanket collection of our private data?”

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