UK Government Admits To Secretly Testing New Tool To Store Web Browsing History of UK Citizens as part of Investigatory Powers Act

If you live in the UK, the chances are that you have heard about the Investigatory Powers Act, which is also known as the Snooper’s Charter. 

The Investigatory Powers Act was unfortunately passed in 2016 and allows the government to spy on internet activity, phone records and enables public bodies to grant themselves access to these personal details with no suspicion of ‘serious crime’ and no independent sign-off.

But now the government has taken a disturbing new turn by secretly testing surveillance technology that could log and store the web browsing history of every single person in the UK.

These tests are being conducted by the Home Office, the National Crime Agency, and two unnamed service providers.

If the pilot tests are successful, data collection systems could be rolled out nationally, creating one of the most powerful and controversial surveillance tools used by any democratic nation.

Shrouded in Secrecy

Investigatory Powers Act

The Investigatory Powers Act has been shrouded in secrecy

While the government has confirmed the use of the tests, it remains shrouded in secrecy under classified information. 

The law also allows security services to acquire and analyse bulk collections of communications data. For example, this could mean a bulk dataset such as NHS health records. 

It also opens the backdoor for the government to overrule encryption mechanisms that would protect people from any party arbitrarily accessing messages and data that would normally be encrypted. 

Commenting on the snooper’s charter, Nic Scott, managing director UK and Ireland at enterprise data security specialists Code42, told reporters: “you either have encryption in place, or you don’t. Once you create a backdoor for law enforcement purposes, you are also opening the door to other, potentially malicious, parties.”

It is unclear what data is being collected, which companies are involved, and how the information is being used. The Home Office refused to provide details of the trial, saying it is “small scale” and is being conducted to determine what data might be acquired and its usefulness. 

Of the UK’s major internet providers, only Vodafone confirmed that it had not been involved in any trials that involved storing people’s internet data. 

Spokespeople for BT, Virgin Media, and Sky refused to comment on any measures around the Investigatory Powers Act. Mobile network operator Three did not respond to a request for comment. Smaller internet service providers say that they have not been included in any trials.

One section of the Investigatory Powers Act says that telecoms companies, or people connected to them, are not allowed to talk about the “existence or contents” of any orders telling them to keep people’s internet data. An employee based at one of these companies claimed that there is secrecy “to the point where they can’t even talk between industry experts in different organisations to share knowledge around best practice.”

What Data Can Be Collected?

Investigatory Powers Act data collection

The government is testing new technology that can monitor every activity on a person’s computer

People’s internet records can contain the apps they have used, the domains they have visited, IP addresses, when internet use starts and finishes, and the amount of data that is transferred to and from a device. It can also reveal health information, political leanings, and personal interests.

Oppositions To The Investigatory Powers Act

One of the most well-known critics of the law is NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, who called the law “the most extreme surveillance in the history of western democracy.” 

Since then, the scope of the legislation has been expanded to include more organisations. Lawsuits have followed – both succeeding and failing – to challenge the enormous quantity of data being collected.

In May 2017, a leaked draft statutory instruments document detailed how the government is seeking to compel telecommunications operators to provide real-time access to named individuals’ communications within one working day under the recently passed law. This includes encrypted messages.

The government also asks for the capability to “provide and maintain the capability to simultaneously intercept, or obtain secondary data” from 6,500 people at any one time.

UK Government Admits To Secretly Testing New Tool To Store Web Browsing History of UK Citizens data collection

Nobody knows what data the government are currently collecting from people’s personal computers

In January 2018, a UK Court of Appeal ruling found the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (DRIPA) – a previous law covering state surveillance that has been expanded upon with the Investigatory Powers Act of 2016 – was unlawful.

The law was subsequently changed to include a definition of ‘serious crime’ that could attract the minimum of a 12-month sentence. The Investigatory Powers Commissioner also announced plans to appoint 13 judicial commissioners to provide independent oversight of surveillance.

The challenge was brought by Labour deputy leader Tom Watson MP, represented by Liberty.

Liberty already struck a blow to the law in April 2018, when the high court found the government’s power to order private companies to store communications data, including internet history, to be in breach of citizens’ right to privacy.

The Investigatory Powers Act is scheduled to be scrutinized in the next year – it needs to be reviewed five years and six months after it was passed into law. Burns says this will be a chance to improve transparency and understand how the law has worked in practice.

The application of the law is particularly relevant at a time when most people have been forced to communicate with friends and family online – thereby potentially giving government bodies an even greater insight into the everyday life and opinions of the public.

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