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UK surveillance bill to give police access to web history

Proposed UK surveillance legislation is expected to allow the police to seize details of websites and access specific web addresses visited by anyone under investigation

The government's planned new surveillance bill will reportedly give police the power to access the web browsing histories of UK citizens.

Under the Investigatory Powers Bill expected to be introduced by home secretary Theresa May on 4 November 2015, telecoms and internet service providers (ISPs) will be required to retain their customers' web browsing history for 12 months, but they will be paid to cover the costs.

Access to this data will be granted to police, the National Crime Agency, intelligence agencies and HM Revenue and Customs.

The proposed bill will allow the police to seize details of the websites and access specific web addresses visited by anyone under investigation, but judicial approval will be required to access the content of the websites.

"I've said many times before that it is not possible to debate the balance between privacy and security, including the rights and wrongs of intrusive powers and the oversight arrangements that govern them without also considering the threats that we face as a country," May was quoted as saying by the Telegraph.

“In the face of such threats we have a duty to ensure that the agencies whose job it is to keep us safe have the powers they need to do the job," she said.

May has told parliament repeatedly that enforcement agencies need more powers to do their jobs effectively, and three of the UK’s law enforcement chiefs have come out in support of a revival of legislation aimed at monitoring electronic communications.

“To prevent terror attacks or serious offences we need to maintain surveillance capacity online,” said Bernard Hogan-Howe, head of London's Metropolitan Police Service.

“We argue that there should be no dark, ungoverned spaces on the internet,” he told a briefing hosted by the security and resilience network of the business membership organisation London First in May 2015.

In 2013, the controversial Communications Data Bill, dubbed the “snoopers' charter", was blocked at the last minute because of opposition from the Liberal Democrats, but in May 2015, the Queen’s Speech confirmed that the government would introduce the Investigatory Powers Bill to “modernise” the law on communications data.

Like the shelved Communications Data Bill, the new legislation will be aimed at giving police and intelligence agencies the power to monitor online communications. 

Conservative MP David Davis, who won a legal challenge to the controversial Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (Dripa) that was rushed through parliament in July 2014, said the police are trying to revive a power that parliament has already rejected.

"It's extraordinary they're asking for this again, they are over-reaching and there is no proven need to retain such data for a year. They need to prove their case, not just assert that they need it,” he told The Times.

Former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg has said the UK will be "setting a worrying international precedent" if proposals under the new bill get the go ahead, while 75% of people polled by YouGov for Big Brother Watch said they did not trust that the data would be kept secret.

News of the proposals come as prime minister David Cameron seeks to strengthen a pact with the US to ensure that US-based internet companies hand over data of suspects when requested, according to the International Business Times.

Read more about the UK Investigatory Powers Bill

In October 2015, the Australian government enacted a controversial data law that requires telecommunications companies to retain a wider range of call and text data for two years.

The law was pushed through parliament despite opposition from Australian citizens, the Green Party and six independent senators.

Like the UK’s proposed Investigatory Powers Bill, the Australian law is aimed at making it easier for Austrian authorities to access telecommunications data. Such data may be accessed in many cases without a warrant. 

However, unlike the proposed UK legislation, third-party email, video, and social media platforms such as Gmail, Hotmail, Facebook and Skype are exempt from some of the data-retention requirements.

Read more on Privacy and data protection