4 Nov 2015

Theresa May: surveillance bill has ‘strong safeguards’

Unveiling a draft Investigatory Powers Bill, Home Secretary Theresa May tells MPs it represents a “significant departure” from previous proposals dubbed the snoopers’ charter by critics.

The current situation, where suspects can be tracked on mobile phones, but not social media, “ignores the reality of today’s digital age”, said the Home Secretary.

Included in the new draft legislation are provisions meaning communications companies will now be legally required to help spies hack into smartphones and computers. All police forces would be allowed to interfere with electronic equipment to obtain data, for example covertly downloading the contents of a mobile phone during a search, with a new code of practice.

Judicial approval

As a safeguard, a judge would have to independently approve a warrant signed by the Secretary of State to intercept such communication. Mrs May described this “double lock” approval system as “one of the strongest authorisation regimes anywhere in the world”.

However, Conservative MP David Davis, a former shadow home secretary, warned that in practice judges would be “extremely unlikely” to overrule any decision of the Home Secretary. Veteran Labour MP David Winnick welcomed the involvement of a judge as better than nothing, but said if the bill was passed without amendments “if would be very unfortunate and a bitter blow for civil liberties”.

The Home Secretary confirmed to the Commons for the first time that since 2001 successive governments have secretly directed internet and phone companies to hand over communications data in bulk to the security services – a practice first revealed by former US security contractor Edward Snowden.

Read more: UK and US spied on text messages of Brits

Mrs May said the proposed law would provide “some of the strongest protections and safeguards anywhere in the democratic world and an approach that set new standards for openness, transparency and oversight”.

A senior judge would be appointed as Investigatory Powers Commissioner, to overhaul oversight arrangements.

‘Itemised phone bill’

Web and phone companies will also be obliged to keep records of websites visited by every citizen for 12 months and police and security services will be able to access this without a warrant. However local authorities will be banned from viewing internet records.

However the Home Secretary insisted that it was “simply wrong” to suggest that the new powers to access “internet connection records” would allow the connection of someone’s full web history.

Mrs May said authorities such as the police and GCHQ would have access to “the modern equivalent of an itemised phone bill”, giving the ability to tell if someone had visited a website, but not the individual pages viewed.

She told the House of Commons: “Law enforcement agencies would not be able to make a request for the purpose of determining, for example, whether someone had visited a mental health website, a medical website or even a news website”, adding “strict limits will apply to when and how that data can be accessed, over and above those safeguards that apply to other forms of communications data”.

‘Blind spots’

Shadow Home Secretary Andy Burnham agreed that current laws are outdated: “in a world where the threats we face internationally and domestically are growing, parliament cannot sit on its hands and leave blind spots where the authorities can’t see.”

As the debate was ongoing in Parliament, Jimmy Wales, who founded Wikipedia, sounded an alarm, tweeting: “I would like to see Apple refuse to sell iPhone in UK if gov’t bans end-to-end encryption. Does Parliament dare be that stupid?”