UK surveillance bill passes House of Commons with bulk powers facing review

The UK government’s controversial Investigatory Powers bill easily passed a vote in the House of Commons yesterday, with 444 votes in favor and 69 against, after securing support from the opposition Labour Party. Only the SNP and the Green Party voted against what critics have dubbed a Snoopers’ Charter.

The Labour party had abstained on an earlier vote, urging the government to make “substantial” changes to the proposed legislation. However this week it trumpeted winning “major concessions” from the government and Labour MPs duly voted with their Conservative counterparts.

The “major concessions” Labour claims to have won from the government on the IP bill include that —

  • an “overarching privacy clause” will be placed at the heart of the bill
  • there will be a commitment that trade union activities cannot be considered sufficient reason for investigatory powers to be used
  • the government will provide assurances that the ‘double lock’ intercept authorization process includes power for Judicial Commissioners to scrutinise the decision to issue a warrant, not just the process
  • the operational case for the inclusion of so-called bulk powers in the bill will be independently reviewed, and this review will consider both the use and necessity of such powers

The party’s spokesman on the bill, Keir Starmer, described the concessions as “a really significant step forward”, ahead of a second day of debate in the Commons — following which the party voted with the government.

“Labour have now won agreement for an independent review of bulk powers and that privacy will be absolutely central to the Bill. We have also ensured there is a robust and effective double-lock in place and have gained hard-fought and long-overdue protections for legitimate trade union activity,” he said in a statement on Monday evening.

At the time the party said it would continue to press the government on three further “areas of concerns” it has regarding the legislation: protections for sensitive professions (such as lawyers, MPs and journalists); a higher threshold for accessing so-called Internet Connection Records (aka the web activity log that ISPs will be required to maintain on users), with the party wanting access to this to be limited to only investigations of “serious” crime, not any crime; and limiting the use of NHS records.

Having secured the backing of the majority of MPs, the draft bill will now pass to the House of Lords for further scrutiny. The independent bulk powers review — which will be led by QC David Anderson — is due to report in time for consideration by the Lords, at the committee stage of their debate.

Yesterday Anderson provided details of the scope of his forthcoming review and the team that will work on it with him. The four bulk powers they will be probing are: bulk interception, bulk acquisition, bulk equipment interference and bulk personal datasets.

Critics such as privacy and human rights groups have slammed bulk powers as disproportion and unnecessary, and counterproductive as an investigatory aid owing to their untargeted nature. Even the UK’s own state security agencies previously warned of the risk of intelligence failures owing to the acquisition of too much data.

“Conduct of the Review will involve the close scrutiny and interrogation of a volume of very highly classified material,” he wrote. “I will be asking whether the Government has established a robust operational case for the bulk powers it says it needs, and examining whether similar results could have been reached by other, less intrusive, means.

“Outside the scope of the Review are issues relating to safeguards and proportionality, many of which I touched on in AQOT [his previous report for the government on counter-terror legislation].  The question I am asked is more basic than that: are the bulk powers really needed at all?”

An Operational Case for bulk powers was finally provided to the UK parliament on March 1. Anderson says this will be “interrogated, in its open and closed versions, by putting the Agencies to strict proof of its claims”, adding that he would also pursue “other avenues” to test the claims it contains.

In a section in this document on why bulk powers are needed, the security agencies write:

…bulk powers provide vital intelligence that cannot be generated from any other source – conventional targeted techniques are insufficient on their own to deal with the range of threats. In countries such as Syria, where the UK has no physical presence, there are often no initial intelligence leads on emerging threats. Bulk powers allow the security and intelligence agencies to identify and map out known and evolving networks, in turn enabling further intelligence gathering on likely threats. Within the UK itself, the analysis of bulk communications data or bulk personal datasets is often the only way for the security and intelligence agencies to progress investigations and identify terrorists from very limited lead intelligence, or when their communications have been deliberately concealed.