The proposed Investigatory Powers Bill risks putting British technology companies at a financial disadvantage because customers won’t want to use products the government has the right to hack into. There are also concerns surrounding the cost of internet providers storing extra data.
That’s according to a panel of representatives from the UK IT industry who presented evidence on issues surrounding the government’s Investigatory Powers Bill to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee.
In the draft Bill recently reintroduced by Home Secretary Theresa May – dubbed the Snooper’s Charter by its critics – the government set out plans to force internet service providers (ISPs) to retain customer web usage data for at least a year, so that the security services can monitor the web sites people have been accessing.
The Bill also explicitly authorises security services’ powers to bulk-collect personal communications data and makes it illegal to even ask in court whether evidence was obtained via bulk surveillance.
In a session designed to examine the technology issues around the Bill – although it occasionally moved in to the ethics of the proposed legislation – representatives of UK technology companies expressed concerns that the Bill could reduce trust in British firms and drive investment – and customers – abroad.
“One area of concern is you could interpret some of the definitions in the Bill as meaning that a UK-based company is obliged in some way to handover more data than a non-UK based company,” John Shaw, VP of product management at Sophos told MPs.
“That runs the risk of putting UK-based companies at a disadvantage when trading with non-UK citizens that are suspicious of using a UK-based company,” he explained.
Matthew Hare, CEO of broadband provider Gigaclear, jumped in at this point and warned that the Investigatory Powers Bill also risks UK customers steering clear of British-made technology due fears over snooping.
“Why would you buy something from a UK company if you thought it might have a backdoor in that if you buy it from a Russian company, of a Venezuelan company or a Chilean company, which might not have?” he asked.
The concern that the Bill could drive investment away from British firms was also shared by James Blessing, chair of the Internet Service Providers Association (ISPA UK), who argued that even if the Bill doesn’t overtly condone the provision of backdoors, the perception that it even could is bad for the finances and reputations of British businesses.
“If a company has a choice between a UK company and an Irish company to provide a service, if the UK law from their perception is more likely to expose their details, they’ll choose the safer option, especially if they’re more risk averse. They might not take it into account on a real level of danger, but a perceived level of danger,” he explained.
When asked by Conservative MP Chris Green if the Investigatory Powers Bill could cause problems in terms of overcoming overseas opposition, Gigaclear’s CEO Hare said it would.
“I definitely believe it would if all of the Bill in its current provision were put into law, which I certainly hope isn’t going to be the case,” he said.
Hare argued that in its current form, the Investigatory Powers Bill gives the government a carte blanche to hack IT equipment of hardware and software providers and users.
“Why would you want to be based in the UK if potentially the government has given themselves the right to frankly hack all of your equipment with the connivance of your service providers? It appears in reading the Bill that that’s the rights it gives the government,” he told MPs.
Government surveillance whistle-blower Edward Snowden – who was frequently referenced during the Committee session – has also accused UK authorities of attempting to pass legislation designed to allow it to hack anyone’s computer.
Hare added that due to the digital nature of the modern world, it would not only be IT providers that will be disadvantaged by the Bill, but it could impact on businesses in a variety of sectors.
“The UK relies on the information industries in a broader sense, for the financial services, legal services, through to software and gaming – it actually affects everyone in the information industry,” he said, adding that the Bill is a “massive own goal” in that it could make the UK appear to be a “worse place to do business”.
The panel of experts also expressed concerns to the Science and Technology Committee that the mass collection and storage of data proposed by Investigatory Powers Bill would come with a large financial cost.
“The indiscriminate collection of mass data across effectively every internet user in this country is going to have massive cost,” said Hare.
“We certainly share the concerns around the amount of data that will need to be kept by service providers,” Shaw added.
The Investigatory Powers Bill has previously been described by critics as ‘profoundly wrong for treating everyone as a suspect’ and Shadow Home Secretary Andy Burnham has expressed concerns over a lack of safeguards within the Bill.