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Government must listen to tech sector in Investigatory Powers Bill

Plans for new powers to allow intelligence agencies to monitor electronic communications must be carefully thought through

In recent weeks there has been much discussion about the nature of security on the internet, including an historic first live interview of a serving UK intelligence chief on the BBC. New draft legislation – the Investigatory Powers Bill – will be published this month.

The bill will set out new powers for law enforcement and intelligence agencies to monitor and access the electronic communications of UK citizens. Getting this legislation right is vital for our security, but also for our economic development and our privacy.

TechUK’s members include large and small technology and communications businesses, based in the UK and abroad. What is clear is that the tech industry takes its responsibilities in helping to secure the safety of British citizens extremely seriously. Few organisations outside the government agencies have a better appreciation of the scale of the challenge and few sectors do more to keep our streets safe.

No investigation by the police or the intelligence agencies happens without the support of communications evidence provided by the technology industry. The significance of this quiet but vital work cannot be understated. Several reviews have made the case for a clear legal framework that is proportionate, necessary and technically and operationally viable.

Done well, the Investigatory Powers Bill will harmonise a complex and inefficient system. It could also provide the tools our law enforcement agencies need and the protections our civil liberties demand. Done badly, the bill could establish an unworkable system that fails to address the challenges we face.

Issues to discuss

When the bill is published, TechUK members want to make sure a few issues are at the forefront of the discussion.

First, British law should not require businesses to breach the law elsewhere. The tech industry is global and our members often offer services from outside the UK. The government wants its new bill to apply to them as if they were based here. Where, for instance, the local law is more protective of users’ privacy, this can put foreign companies between a rock and a hard place.

Read more about the Investigatory Powers Bill

Second, the government should recognise that encryption is not a bad thing. Every single person who uses the internet relies on encryption to protect themselves from those who would do them harm, defraud them, or seek to infect their systems with viruses. Every online purchase, every banking transaction, every visit to almost any website in the world requires some form of encryption. Requiring businesses to insert backdoors for the security agencies can only weaken that protection for consumers.

Third, the government needs to make the case for bulk data collection. Before parliament grants new powers to require bulk collection – the harvesting and retention of people’s communications data – it is important that the costs and implications for privacy are justified by the benefits. David Anderson’s review of intelligence powers made it clear that case has yet to be made. Such wide-ranging powers should be subject to oversight by judges. 

The tech industry wants to work with government to develop new legislation that is effective, proportionate, rooted in the rule of law and technologically feasible. In addressing the challenges of modern communications through the Investigatory Powers Bill, the UK has the opportunity develop world-leading standards of authorisation, oversight and transparency, creating legislation that is emulated around the world. It is an opportunity we must grasp together.

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