Seven Major Takeaways From the U.K.’s Proposed Surveillance Rules

THE BRITISH GOVERNMENT on Wednesday published a proposed new law to reform and dramatically expand surveillance powers in the United Kingdom. The 190-page Investigatory Powers Bill is thick with detail and it will probably take weeks and months of analysis until its full ramifications are understood. In the meantime, I’ve read through the bill and noted down a few key aspects of the proposed powers that stood out to me — including unprecedented new data retention measures, a loophole that allows spies to monitor journalists and their sources, powers enabling the government to conduct large-scale hacking operations, and more.

Internet connection records

In the days prior to the publication of the Investigatory Powers Bill, the British government’s Home Secretary Theresa May claimed that the law would not be “giving new powers to go through people’s browsing history.” However, the text of the bill makes clear that this is precisely what the government is trying to do.

Under the proposed law, Internet companies in the U.K. would be forced to record and store for up to 12 months logs showing websites visited by all of their customers. The government has tried to present this as “not a record of every web page” accessed (emphasis added). This is technically true, but it’s also extremely misleading. The logs will show every web site you visited — for example, — as opposed to the specific pages on that website, for example,

This information, especially when accumulated over a period of a year, would still be highly personal, potentially revealing your political preferences, sexuality, religion, medical problems, and other details that could be used to draw inferences about your private life.

The attempt to obtain this power is a politically radical move. As far as I am aware, no other Western democracy has implemented a nationwide data retention regime that encompasses all citizens’ annual web browsing habits. The British government says the data will only be looked at to determine, for example, “whether someone [has] accessed a communications website [or] an illegal website.” But there are only limited safeguards in place to ensure these conditions are not breached by overzealous authorities. Police will be able to access the records without any judicial approval; a person’s website browsing records can be obtained after a “designated senior officer” grants an authorization.

Notably, British surveillance agency Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ, already has systems it uses to sweep up and monitor people’s website browsing histories in bulk, as The Intercept reported in September. You can make it much harder for the government and Internet companies to monitor your browsing habits by adopting the anonymity tool Tor.


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