U.K. Accused Of Fast-Tracking Surveillance Powers Scrutiny

The U.K. government is being accused of once again trying to fast track complex and controversial surveillance legislation. Y’know, remember DRIPA?

The draft Investigatory Powers Bill, which will replace DRIPA when that legislation expires at the end of next year, was introduced to parliament earlier this month, with Home Secretary Theresa May telling MPs there would be adequate time afforded for “careful Parliamentary scrutiny” of the proposed legislation, including by a special cross-bench committee.

However the amount of time this joint select committee is being afforded to scrutinize a document that runs to some 300-pages has been slammed as inadequate — including by members of the committee itself.

The committee is expected to report by February 11, 2016, giving it only a few weeks to conduct expert hearings before parliament breaks for the holiday period — with perhaps only as few as three expert hearings likely to be possible within the current timetable. The House of Commons breaks for Christmas recess from December 17 to January 5.

While the deadline for written submissions to the committee is today — meaning just 10 days have been afforded to gather wider responses on factors such as the technical feasibility, costs and cyber security issues, as well as on impacts on U.K. citizens and businesses.

By contrast the prior attempt to legislate in this area, the 2012 Data Communications bill, was afforded some five months of parliamentary time for scrutiny — and ultimately failed to convince MPs its measures were proportionate.

The IP bill not only seeks to enshrine in U.K. law controversial mass surveillance powers that only came to light after the Snowden disclosures — and which U.K. intelligence agencies had been using for years without a clear oversight regime. But it also expands surveillance capabilities by, for instance, putting a requirement on ISPs to keep records of users’ web activity for a full 12 months.

There are also concerns about the implications of the bill for strong encryption, and controversy around its sanctioning of bulk hacking powers by the intelligence and security agencies — with the suggestion that tech companies could be compelled to backdoor their services to provide access to government agencies.

On web activity logging, the Home Secretary argues that the intelligence and security agencies need to be able to find out which Internet services a suspect might have been using. However the technical feasibility of determining this from the so-called ‘Internet Connection Records’ set out in the bill has been called into question by ISPs.

Bottom line, the select committee is being expected to interrogate a highly complex interlocking web of technical, legal and ethical issues in far less time than was afforded the last piece of proposed legislation in this area.

In a tweet earlier this week one of the members of the committee, Liberal Democrat Peer Lord Strasburger, dubbed the timetable set out by government as “ridiculous”, noting that as it stands the committee will have just two weeks to hear witnesses.

Today he tweeted that the committee is attempting to get more time from the government “so we can do a proper job” — but added: “They’re not budging yet.”

A Home Office spokesman told TechCrunch the House of Lords agreed the schedule for the scrutiny committee “with no opposition at all”, adding that the time to challenge the timetable would have been when the Lords had the hearing.

“The committee has two and a half months for its report,” the spokesman added.