U.K. Government Confirms Push For More Comms Data Capture Powers

As expected, the newly elected U.K. Conservative government has confirmed its intention to push for broader powers to capture online communications, announcing a forthcoming Investigatory Powers Bill in its legislative plan for the five-year Parliament, revealed today in the Queen’s speech.

The Bill will be aimed at addressing what the government terms “capability gaps” in law enforcement and intelligence agencies’ abilities to combat terrorism and serious crime.

The key aims are stated as:

Better equipping law enforcement and intelligence agencies to meet their key
operational requirements, and addressing the gap in these agencies’ ability to
build intelligence and evidence where subjects of interest, suspects and
vulnerable people have communicated online.

The government does not specify exactly what these capability gaps are (in its view), but Prime Minister David Cameron has previously spoken out against strong encryption — arguing it should always be possible for intelligence agencies to access data “in extremis”.

Home Secretary Theresa May has also previously made plain her support for more extensive powers of data retention — pushing, in the last Parliament, for legislation that would have forced Internet companies to retain data about online conversations, social media activity, calls and text messages for 12 months (measures widely criticized as a ‘Snoopers’ Charter’).

That Bill was derailed by the then-government’s coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats. However the new Tory administration now has a working majority without any partner parties so it has the chance to drive through its own legislative agenda, undiluted.

Full details of what the government is planning will have to wait for a draft version of the Investigatory Powers Bill to be published. The BBC reports that more details about the Bill are expected to be published in the coming days.

As well as expanded data capture powers, the government says the planned legislation will aim to “maintain the ability of our intelligence agencies and law enforcement to target the online communications of terrorists, paedophiles and other serious criminals”, and also “modernise our law in these areas and ensure it is fit for purpose”.

In the previous Parliament the government fast tracked emergency surveillance legislation (the Data Retention and Investigative Powers Bill) to maintain its digital data gathering powers, after European data retention legislation was struck down by Europe’s top court on the grounds that it was disproportionate. DRIPA has a sunset clause meaning it expires at the end of 2016, so the government is presumably looking to roll similar data capture powers into the new bill (which won’t have an expiry date).

Lastly the briefing notes on the forthcoming Investigatory Powers Bill state it will “provide for appropriate oversight and safeguard arrangements”, and will “respond to issues raised in the independent review by the Independent Reviewer of Counter-Terrorism legislation”, which it notes is due to be published shortly.

Ongoing scrutiny has fallen on state surveillance activities in the wake of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations about the systematic digital data capture being undertaken by government intelligence agencies. Documents released by Snowden have forced intelligence agencies to acknowledge certain secret data capture programs and processes — and encouraged debate about the legality of government activities and failures of oversight.

At the European level especially there has been condemnation of unchecked dragnet surveillance. But even the IPT, the U.K. court that oversees domestic intelligence agencies, ruled that some past surveillance data-sharing activity was not legal.

Add to that, back in March, the U.K. parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee called for a new single act of Parliament to govern how domestic spy agencies operate — with the aim of improving transparency and public trust.