Government plans for wider internet surveillance revealed in leaked documents
In a follow-up to the controversial Investigatory Powers Act, the government is currently privately consulting on more far-reaching surveillance powers, according to leaked documents from a private consultation.
The leaked document, which was shared with the Technical Advisory Board – a panel made up of representatives from O2, BT, Vodafone, Virgin Media, BSkyB and Cable & Wireless – includes the need for messaging applications to include backdoors in their encryption, and the ability for real-time monitoring of citizens.
The idea of a backdoor to encryption has been brought up before and is routinely dismissed as dangerous by technology companies. In short, governments want to be able to access dangerous people’s communications in order to get a headstart on terrorist acts, while tech companies rightly point out that if you break encryption for one person, you break it for everybody. There is no such thing as a backdoor that only goodies can use: hackers and criminals benefit from broken encryption.
There’s also the issue that the UK government can’t enforce its own regulations on companies that are based outside of Britain. That means that the likes of WhatsApp, iMessage, Facebook Messenger, Signal, Telegram and, well, pretty much any messaging app you can think of wouldn’t have to comply with the new laws. Though of course, the UK could always push to ban them outright – an idea that’s been bandied before, albeit by a different prime minister.
Another part of the leaked document discusses the need for telecommunications operators to provide “communications and secondary data in near real time”. The document suggests that operators will need to provide communications data on “up to one in 10,000” of the people on each company’s books. That, as The Register points out, is the surveillance of up to 6,500 people at a time. For this surveillance to be actioned, the approval of a senior police official or the secretary of state will be required – and the process will be overseen by a judge appointed by the prime minister.
All of these steps certainly sound draconian and will alarm privacy campaigners – especially as there appears to be no plan for a public consultation on the measures. The fact that the document has leaked suggests some dissatisfaction somewhere along the line.
The private consultation is open until 19 May, though, of course, the general election on 8 June could put a spanner in the plan’s works, depending on the makeup of our new-look parliament. But with all polls pointing to a larger Conservative majority than we have now, it appears unlikely. “This lays bare the extreme mass surveillance this Conservative government is planning after the election,” Liberal Democrat president Sal Brinton told The Register.
“It is a full frontal assault on civil liberties and people’s privacy. The security services need to be able to keep people safe. But these disproportionate powers are straight out of an Orwellian nightmare and have no place in a democratic society.”