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Encyrption ban banished from draft UK surveillance bill

Peter Sayer | Nov. 5, 2015
But Britons' web surfing habits will be stored for a year and made available to police.

The Houses of Parliament in London
The Houses of Parliament in London. Credit: Gov.uk

A threatened ban on encryption has been banished from a draft bill on surveillance powers in the U.K. -- but the government plans to explicitly allow bulk surveillance of Internet traffic by security and intelligence agencies.

U.K. Home Secretary Theresa May began by listing the things the draft bill did not contain as she introduced it in Parliament on Wednesday.

"It will not include powers to force U.K. companies to capture and retain third-party Internet traffic from companies based overseas. It will not compel overseas communications service providers to meet our domestic data retention requirements for communications data. It will not ban encryption or do anything to undermine the security of people's data," she said.

But she does want police and the security and intelligence services to have the right to track Internet communications in the same way they do phone calls.

"It cannot be right that police could find an abducted child if the suspects were using mobile phones to conduct their crime, but if they were using social media or communications apps they would be out of reach," she said.

How police will be able to do that if companies such as Apple retain the right to offer end-to-end encrypted communications remains to be seen. The devil, as several Members of Parliament remarked in responses to May's statement, is in the details.

The new proposal is not a return to the draft communications data bill of 2012, May said. That was heavily criticized for containing the kinds of measures she ruled out Wednesday, and ultimately blocked by the ruling Conservative Party's coalition partners at the time, the Liberal Democrats.

Draft bills are proposals for legislation that have not yet been debated in one of the two houses of Parliament.

Before those debates begin, May's text will first be examined by a joint committee of the two houses to get it into a form that will encounter less opposition than did its predecessor. The main opposition party, Labour, has already welcomed Wednesday's proposals -- in principle at least.

May intends to have the bill passed into law by Dec. 31, 2016, when previous legislation enabling government surveillance of communications expires.

The new draft frames the abilities of the police and security and intelligence services to acquire and retain communications data, to intercept the contents of communications, and to interfere with equipment so as to obtain data covertly from computers.

It also regulates the bulk use of these powers by the intelligence and security services, May said.

One measure likely to attract criticism is the requirement on ISPs to retain 12 months' worth of "Internet connection records" showing which communications services customers have used.

 

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