UK surveillance powers bill needs “substantial changes,” warns opposition Labour party

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The UK government is continuing to try to push much criticized surveillance powers legislation through parliament, with the bill in question — the Investigatory Powers bill — getting its second reading in Parliament tomorrow.

However the opposition Labour Party, which was initially welcoming when the government introduced the bill last fall, has said it will be abstaining in this vote — arguing the government needs to do more to bolster privacy protections.

Speaking to The Times today, Shadow Home Secretary Andy Burnham said “substantial changes” are needed before the party will be willing to vote for the bill.

Three committees which looked at the first draft of the legislation all had substantial criticisms — and some, such as the Intelligence and Security Committee, were highly critical.

Critics have said the government has made only cosmetic tweaks since then, with many arguing the amended draft is — if anything — even worse than the original draft. Last week, for example, Eric King, deputy director of humans rights group Privacy International, told TechCrunch that bulk hacking powers set out in the bill amount to “the worst form of a backdoor”.

“The Home Secretary’s Bill requires substantial changes before it will be acceptable to us. While I share her wish to see a comprehensive Bill on the Statute Book by the end of this year, we can’t let the timetable dictate the quality. On Tuesday, I will make clear to the Home Secretary that, if she fails to listen to our concerns, Labour will be prepared to delay this legislation so that we get it right,” Labour’s Burnham told the Times newspaper.

“We believe the Bill must start with a presumption of privacy, as recommended by the Intelligence and Security Committee, include a clearer definition of the information that can be held in an Internet Connection Record and set a higher threshold to justify access to them. There also needs to be a higher degree of protection for journalists and their sources,” he added.

Asked why the party is not going to be actively voting against the bill, if it believes there are fundamental problems with it, a spokesman for Burnham told TechCrunch the party supports the idea that new legislation is needed in this area so does not want to actively block a bill. Rather it hopes to be able to work towards improving it.

“We think there’s a need for a bill — we’re not against one completely. We want the debate to continue so that the government can listen to our arguments,” said the spokesman. “We don’t want to play politics with it, it’s about making the best piece of legislation that we can do and not rushing it. So the government have got our support for making a bill to improve [the investigatory powers framework] so we couldn’t vote for it and give them a blank cheque. We didn’t just want to stop it by voting against it tomorrow. So we’re going to abstain so that the debate continues and the government can hopefully take on board some of our criticisms.”

The spokesman added the party would be willing to see the legislative timeframe extended to 2017, rather than trying to rush a bad bill through parliament this year.

“If they don’t take on board any of the criticisms we don’t rule out delaying it, asking the government to extend the current legislation that expires in December and making the debate on this bill go into 2017 — if they don’t listen to us on points of privacy, thresholds, historical abuses, exact definitions on Internet Connection Records (ICRs),” he said.

ICR refers to the requirement placed on ISPs to maintain a log of the web services accessed by users for a full 12 months. Critics have called this element of the proposals a massive privacy invasion and a huge security risk, given that ISPs will be required to store and safeguard the citizens’ ICRs themselves. And questions remain about how much this will cost — and how much of those costs the government will commit to covering.

Burnham will be giving a speech in Parliament tomorrow setting out the Labour party’s concerns in greater detail — which the spokesman said will include detailed arguments pertaining to the controversial bulk powers contained within the legislation.

“Some of our concerns are based on the committees’ concerns and we’re trying to get those safeguards and assurances written into the bill that the committees wanted to see,” he added. “The bill needs things rewriting and clearer definitions but we can work with this bill and improve it. Rather than ask for a whole new bill.”

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