surveillance

New data law a serious expansion of surveillance, say law experts

Warwick Ashford

The emergency surveillance legislation being rushed through the UK parliament could be in breach of European law, 15 technology law experts have warned.

The controversial Data Retention and Investigatory Powers bill is “a serious expansion” of the surveillance state, the group of UK academics said in an open letter to parliament.

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The legislation, known as Drip, was passed by the House of Commons in just one day and is expected to become law as early as 17 July after it goes to the House of Lords.

If passed, it will reinstate powers struck down by the European Court of Justice in April, enabling the government to force phone and internet firms to retain and hand over data.

The bill was fast-tracked after the prime minister struck a deal with Labour and the Liberal Democrats to support the process in exchange for a list of safeguards and undertakings.

The safeguards include a sunset clause for the legislation, a review of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa), and a reduction in the number of public bodies able to access the data.

But in the open letter to the Commons, the 15 academics said it is unnecessary to rush the legislation through parliament.

“The legislation goes far beyond simply authorising data retention in the UK,” the letter states. “In fact, Drip attempts to extend the territorial reach of British interception powers, expanding the UK’s ability to mandate the interception of communications content across the globe. It introduces powers that are not only completely novel in the United Kingdom, they are some of the first of their kind globally.”

The academics said the bill incorporates a number of changes to interception of data, while its purported urgency relates only to the striking down of the Data Retention Directive.

“Even if there was a real emergency relating to data retention, there is no apparent reason for this haste to be extended to the area of interception,” the letter states.

The letter calls on the government not to fast-track the legislation, but to apply full and proper parliamentary scrutiny to ensure MPs are not misled on the powers it truly confers.

The government has insisted that the legislation is about clarifying and retaining existing powers necessary for national security and does not expand existing surveillance capabilities.

Home secretary Theresa May told the home affairs select committee earlier this week that the government wants to clarify Ripa’s extra-territorial remit, according to The Guardian newspaper.

“This has been questioned, and we feel it’s appropriate therefore to put that beyond doubt in terms of legislating. But these are powers and capabilities that exist today, that are used today,” she said.

Whistleblower Edward Snowden, a former contractor for the US intelligence agency the National Security Agency (NSA), has condemned the legislation. He expressed concern about the speed of the process and the lack of public debate.

He likened the move to the Protect America Act introduced by the US in 2007, which used concerns about terrorist threats to justify and preserve intelligence gathering operations.

Snowden said the US bill had been introduced into Congress on 1 August 2007 and signed into law on 5 August without any substantial open public debate.


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