The British government doesn’t partake in mass surveillance and the draft Investigatory Powers Bill isn’t about enabling the right to do so, the Home Secretary Theresa May has claimed.
May made the comments while presenting evidence on the Bill to the House of Lords Draft Investigatory Powers Bill Joint Committee.
The Draft Bill – dubbed the Snooper’s Charter by critics – was reintroduced last year and 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.
However, responding to questioning from Liberal Democrat peer Lord Strasburger, May claimed that bulk data collection doesn’t amount to mass surveillance.
“You indicated that what we’re doing is mass surveillance, you described it as mass surveillance. The UK does not undertake mass surveillance, we have not and we do not undertake mass surveillance and that’s not what the Investigatory Powers Bill is about,” said the Home Secretary.
Her remarks contradict those made by government surveillance whistleblower Edward Snowden who in 2013 claimed British spy agency GCHQ is tapping global internet traffic and phone calls, processing information from around the world which it is sharing with its opposite number in the US, the National Security Agency (NSA).
However, May did admit that the Bill would allow the government to engage in bulk equipment interference, something she claimed is required to keep citizens safe.
“But you referred to bulk equipment interference; this is important, there will be cases where it’s necessary to use that to keep pace with those who want to do us harm ,where it’s not impossible to disrupt and intervene on activities through interception,” she said.
But May told the Committee that bulk data collection didn’t ammount to mass surveillance on citizens.
“If you want me to write to the Committee to describe why the bulk powers are necessary, then obviously I can do that. But I wish to be very clear that mass surveillance isn’t what we’re talking about,” she said.
The Home Secretary also claimed that the reason the draft Bill is so vague when it comes to descriptive terms – something critics suggest will enable the authorities to cherry pick whatever data it wants to collect – is it’s because it future proofs the legislation.
“We’re trying to craft legislation which will operate in what can be quite fast-moving technological world where things are developing. And the more you prescribe specific definitions, then the harder it becomes and the shorter the life of the legislation is likely to be,” said May
“It’s a balance to ensure that the legislation is so drafted so its clear to people, but that it isn’t so drafted that it actually only has a very limited life precisely because the definitions will move on and there will be developments,” she added.
The Home Secretary is pushing ahead with attempts to increase surveillence powers despite security experts and technology firms warning that the legislation is invasive, wouldn’t make it easier to stop crime and that it could even be damaging to British business.
William E. Binney, retired technical director of the US National Security Agency (NSA), answered questions from the Parliamentary Joint Committee earlier this month and argued that mass surveillance and forcing analysts to sift through billions of records overwhelms their ability to detect threats. His evidence was referred to throughout the questioning of May.
“Dumping bulk acquisition on your analysts makes them fail and that’s consistently what’s happened. This is what I’ve objected to from the very beginning of this process in the NSA,” he said.
“This has made their analysts fail and they’ve failed consistently since 9/11 and even before. So that’s what my thrust is against: bulk acquisition,” Binney added.
The Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, also expressed concerns about the Investigatory Powers Bill during the same committee session. He argued that it shouldn’t be the case the state can access all of a citizen’s private data, just because it wants the power to do so.
What I’m not prepared to sign up to is the suggestion that willy-nilly, the state ultimately always has a right to access all that, just because it can and salus populi suprema lex [Latin: The welfare of the people shall be the supreme law] and all that,” Graham said.
The Conservative government’s surveillance proposals have also been criticised by some of the biggest technology firms in the world, including Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft.
In submitted written evidence, Apple warned that any government move to weaken encryption would be dangerous and put the public at risk.
“The creation of backdoors and intercept capabilities would weaken the protections built into Apple products and endanger all our customers. A key left under the doormat would not just be there for the good guys. The bad guys would find it too,” the company said.
British technology firms have also issued warnings against the Investigatory Powers Bill, arguing that it represents a government right to hack and represents a risk to British business.
“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,” Matthew Hare, CEO of broadband provider Gigaclear told MPs.
The Joint Committee is due to report its findings in full on February 11. According to The Times, Committee Chairman Lord Murphy of Torfaen made a request for a later deadline, which was refused.
That decision has lead to accusations that government ministers are attempting to rush the Bill in order for it to avoid proper scrutiny.
Despite this, the Home Secretary made repeated suggestions during questioning that she’d submit further written evidence to the Joint Committee.