Top British intelligence services, including MI5 and GCHQ, have been bulk collecting the phone and email data of the general public for the past 14 years.
The admission came during Home Secretary Theresa May’s speech to Parliament on Wednesday in which she outlined the government’s controversial Investigatory Powers Bill.
Theresa May, according to the BBC, revealed that the bulk collection of communications data had been authorised by every Home Secretary since 2001 and had helped MI5 to foil a number of terrorist plots.
The Home Secretary said that successive governments had allowed security services to access data from communications companies. This included the bulk collection of phone call records (so called meta data) but not the content of the call itself.
BBC security correspondent Gordon Corera was quoted as saying that the programme was “so secret that few even in MI5 knew about it, let alone the public”.
Meanwhile the new Investigatory Powers Bill is also proving to be hugely controversial. This is despite Theresa May insisting earlier this week that the more “contentious” aspects of its 2012 predecessor, the infamous “snooper’s charter”, had been dropped.
But the Investigatory Powers Bill makes explicit the sweeping new powers for the bulk collect people’s electronic data by British authorities.
For example, Internet Service Providers and mobile phone companies will be required keep a record of websites visited and phone calls made for the past 12 months.
The police, intelligence services and other public bodies will be able to access this information, and will be able to see the names of websites that suspects have visited, without a search warrant. Local councils meanwhile will not be able to access online data stored by internet firms, but will still retain some investigatory powers, such as surveillance of benefit cheats.
Another alarming development is that British intelligence services will also have a licence to hack into, and indeed bug or monitor computers and phones around the world for national security reasons.
The bill will also place a legal obligation on foreign companies to assist in these operations to bypass encryption.
There will however be judicial oversight on spying operations, with a panel of seven judges that have the power to block spying operations authorised by the home secretary. But exemptions will be allowed in “urgent cases”.
The existing system of three oversight commissioners will be replaced with single investigatory powers commissioner who will be a senior judge.
The Prime Minister will also be consulted when the communications of MPs is intercepted. The sensitive communications of journalists, doctors, lawyers can also be intercepted, but the reasons for the intercept have to be spelled out when the minister approves the warrant.
The Investigatory Powers Bill now faces a period of consultation before it is officially introduced to Parliament in the New Year. It will then have to pass votes in both houses of Parliament.
It should be noted that Labour is backing the the draft bill, after the shadow home secretary Andy Burnham said it was “neither a snoopers’ charter nor a plan for mass surveillance”.
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