Britain’s government published proposals for new Internet spying laws Wednesday including allowing partial access to a suspect’s Internet browsing history that were condemned by privacy campaigners.
Home Secretary Theresa May hailed the draft legislation as a “world-leading oversight regime”, but a leading rights group described the proposals as a “breath-taking attack” on Britain’s online security.
“This new legislation will underpin the work of law enforcement and the security and intelligence agencies for years to come. It is their license to operate,” May told parliament.
The security services would be able to access Internet communication records, which show which online services were accessed by a suspect and when.
This would show that a messaging service such as Facebook or WhatsApp had been used, but not the content of messages or their recipient.
The bill also allows security officials to see which websites a suspect had accessed, but not which pages were viewed within those sites.
“Some have characterized this power as law enforcement having access to people’s full web browsing histories. Let me be clear: this is simply wrong,” May said.
“An Internet connection record is a record of a communications service that a person has used, not a record of every webpage they have accessed.”
The records would have to be held by service providers for 12 months.
The proposals would not force foreign-based companies such as Facebook and Google to meet “domestic retention obligations” for communications data.
Civil liberties concerns
The plans also propose a new way of authorizing warrants for data interception.
Currently, warrants for such data requests are issued by May, but in future these must also be approved by a judge.
“This will place a double lock on the authorization of our most intrusive investigatory powers,” May said.
The bill spells out how agencies can acquire data in bulk and how they can “interfere” with electronic equipment such as computers and smartphones in order to obtain data.
Civil liberties groups worry that the bill’s powers will lack sufficient oversight and be used unnecessarily, and could lead to the kind of blanket surveillance revealed by US whistleblower Edward Snowden.
“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,” said Shami Chakrabarti, director of civil rights group Liberty.
“Wider snooping powers will take the UK closer to becoming a surveillance state,” said Alice Wyss, UK Researcher at Amnesty International.
“Are government spies going to be routinely listening in on charities, journalists, local councils and individual protesters?” she asked.
Lawyer Ben Emmerson, UN special rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights, said the new bill “falls short of the putting the power to issue a warrant in the first place into the hands of an independent judge, which is where it belongs.”
The proposals will be scrutinized by a committee of lawmakers, allowing changes to be made before it is formally debated by parliament.
British officials say it was partly due to concerns raised by Snowden that they have updated surveillance legislation, and also because current laws date as far back as 1995, before the rise of the Internet.
The draft bill will reduce three current supervisory bodies — one on communications interception, one for intelligence agencies and one for law enforcement — to one body led by a senior judge.