Home Secretary Theresa May tried to convince MPs and peers at Westminster this afternoon that a proposed new surveillance law is absolutely necessary.
May did her best to defend the Investigatory Powers Bill that she unveiled last November, answering a number of probing questions from the 14-strong committee.
The UK government argues that the proposals in the bill are necessary to ensure the nation’s security agencies can effectively track and identify terrorists, paedophiles and other serious criminals.
May previously 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.”
One of the proposals outlined in the bill is that communications service providers (CSPs) hold data on their customers for 12 months just in case intelligence agencies need to access it.
The committee said it had not received any evidence that suggested CSPs would be able to collect this much data on UK citizens, citing cost and technical ability as major hurdles. When May was asked to provide further detail on these areas, she said her government department, the Home Office, would respond in writing in due course.
May was also keen to stress that she has met the leaders of CSPs in person. “We are confident from those discussions that it will be technically feasible,” she said.
When the committee highlighted that the UK’s proposed mass surveillance strategy had not worked for countries like Denmark, May gave a confusing response where she seemed to contradict herself.
“We will have a more targeted approach than Danes on ICRs (internet communication records),” she said. “They took one of every 500 packets but we’ll take everything.”
Silicon Valley’s thoughts
The Investigatory Powers Bill, dubbed the snooper’s charter by critics, was criticised by Silicon Valley tech companies last week.
Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple urged the UK government not to follow through with the bill as it stands. The companies want to protect their users’ privacy and are therefore reluctant to sign up to a number of proposals in the 299-page document, including bulk surveillance, weaker encryption, and measures that could force them to hack their own customers.
May insisted that current legal position on encryption remains same and the government is not pushing for back-doors or keys to bypass encryption.
Former NSA technical director William Binney also criticised the bill last week, saying mass surveillance does not work as intelligence agencies become overwhelmed by too much information.
Joseph Coley, an assistant on the committee, emailed Business Insider this statement last week:
“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.”