Silicon Valley’s biggest technology firms have criticised a new surveillance law that the UK government is currently considering.
The Investigatory Powers Bill (IP Bill) — introduced by Home Secretary Theresa May last November — has several major issues, according to Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, and Yahoo.
The group presented their views to the Investigatory Powers Bill Joint Committee on December 21, arguing for significant modifications.
The five tech firms want to protect their users’ privacy and are therefore reluctant to sign up to a number of proposals in the 299-page bill, including bulk surveillance, weaker encryption, and measures that could force them to hack their own customers.
The UK government argues that the proposals are necessary to ensure the nation’s security agencies can effectively track and identify terrorists, paedophiles and other serious criminals. Last year, May said the bill will “provide some of the strongest protections and safeguards anywhere in the democratic world and an approach that sets new standards for openness, transparency and oversight.”
“Far reaching implications”
But the Silicon Valley group said it is concerned that any surveillance laws introduced in the UK would undermine the trust between themselves and their customers.
“The actions the UK Government takes here could have far reaching implications — for our customers, for your own citizens, and for the future of the global technology industry,” the group wrote in what can be described as a rare sign of allegiance.
Apple, the world’s largest technology company, released its own thoughts on the bill last month, accusing those behind it of undermining consumer trust and risking “serious international conflicts”.
The counteroffensive from the technology giants comes after NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed how the US and the UK security agencies can eavesdrop on communications made over their platforms.
Under the proposed bill, police and intelligence agencies would be able to access the internet browsing history of every UK citizen without the need for judicial authorisation. However, if they wish to see the content of communications, then they must receive authorisation from the Home Secretary and a new panel of judicial commissioners.
The Home Secretary says Britain isn’t looking to ban encryption, but there are fears that the phrasing of the Bill could force tech companies to weaken encryption in order to comply.
Firms like Apple and Facebook use strong encryption in their products, meaning neither the company nor law enforcement can access the contents of communications or data, even with a warrant.
“The companies believe that encryption is a fundamental security tool, important to the security of the digital economy as well as crucial to ensuring the safety of web users worldwide,” the group wrote. “We reject any proposals that would require companies to deliberately weaken the security of their products via backdoors, forced decryption, or any other means.”
The group is also strongly opposed to the introduction of any law that requires overseas companies to hand over data to the UK government.
Backing up its argument, the group wrote: “We have collective experience around the world of personnel who have nothing to do with the data sought being arrested or intimidated in an attempt to force a overseas corporation to disclose user information. We do not believe that the UK wants to legitimise this lawless and heavy-handed practice.”
Lack of transparency
The firms are also concerned that the language used in the Bill is too vague and at times ambiguous.
“There are many aspects of the Bill which we believe remain opaque: judicial authorisation; the extent of the obligations on companies outside of the UK; the confusing messages about the extent to which there is an obligation to produce material that can be read versus the government’s statement about the Bill not prohibiting encryption; and the obligations on technical capability.
“We urge the Joint Committee and the Home Office to do all that it can to ensure that the whole Bill is written clearly and unambiguously.”
Other organisations that submitted evidence to the Joint Committee include: EE, Mozilla, Vodafone, the Internet Service Providers’ Association (ISPA), the National Union of Journalists, the Institute for Human Rights, and the Muslim Council of Britain. A full list can be found here.
Joseph Coley, an assistant on the committee, emailed Business Insider this statement:
“The Committee is expected to produce a report for the Government by 11 February. The report is likely to be published on or after that date.
“We cannot say when or if the IP Bill will ultimately be passed by the two Houses. First the Government will have to decide when and how to bring before Parliament an amended Bill. This will then need to pass both Houses, and the timescale is difficult for us to predict. You will probably be aware that the Government’s intention is to get new legislation enacted before the end of 2016, when the provisions of the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014 will expire.”