Surveillance bill: Unbreakable encryption banned, browsing histories exposed

Security cameras are seen on a building at the Bund in front of the financial district of Pudong in Shanghai March. © Aly Song
Labour MPs will likely oppose Tory plans to allow spy agencies full access to online browsing histories when ministers introduce the Investigatory Powers Bill in parliament. The new laws also seek to ban tech firms from offering customers unbreakable encryption.

The bill, set to be introduced on Wednesday, was first expected to give police the power to access the full internet browsing history of all computers in the UK. 

On Sunday, however, Home Secretary Theresa May revealed the bill would be much weaker than initially planned.

Speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show, May said the bill does not have some of the “contentious powers” that were in the 2012 bill, which critics dubbed a “snooper’s charter.”

She explained that police would only be able to see websites people have visited, but not specific pages, unless they have a warrant.

However, spy agencies and police may still be given the explicit right to hack into smartphones and computers.

‘It provides a picture of that individual’s life’ 

Labour MP Keir Starmer said his party disagrees with giving spy agencies access to web browsing history as it is “very close” to granting full access to content, which provides a full picture of someone’s life.

But by saying the agencies can collect information on pages visited, there is a sense that a difficult third category is being created that is a merger between data and content.

If your browsing history is automatically accessible by the state, it is very close to granting full access to content and provides a picture of that individual’s life.

The independent reviewer of terrorism David Anderson said the case for accessing browsing history has not yet been proven and we in the Labour Party are very closely aligned to what Anderson has recommended in his report since he is the expert with the fullest access to what is required.”

Starmer said May would have to make a “very compelling” case for her proposals if they differ from Anderson’s.

It is also likely that former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who vetoed the snooper’s charter while in office, will also argue the government should follow the recommendations of the Anderson review.

‘Ban on unbreakable encryption’

An online petition calling for the government to abandon plans to ban strong encryption has attracted nearly 4,000 signatures.

Under the legislation, internet and social media companies such as Google and Apple will be banned from offering unbreakable encryption.

The firms will no longer be able to offer encryption so advanced that even they cannot decipher it when asked to, according to the Daily Telegraph.

This follows concerns that a growing number of encryption services are completely inaccessible by anyone beyond account users themselves.

Speaking on ITV’s This Morning show on Monday, Prime Minister David Cameron said terrorists and criminals should not be allowed to communicate secretly online.

According to Crown Prosecution Service, convictions of suspects who refuse to hand over their encrypted passwords have risen rapidly in the last four years.

Therefore, more criminals are pleading guilty to encryption offenses when preventing officers from searching through their phones and discovering potential key information for their investigations.

Commenting on the bill, the Home Office said authorities should be able to access communications to prevent criminal acts.

The government is clear we need to find a way to work with industry as technology develops to ensure that, with clear oversight and a robust legal framework, the police and intelligence agencies can access the content of communications of terrorists and criminals in order to resolve police investigations and prevent criminal acts.”