Browsing history to be stored for a year

6 November 2015   By Justin Schamotta

MOBILE networks and ISPs will be forced to keep records of the websites we visit for up to a year, if new plans outlined by the Government are made law.

computer hacking data fraud

The Draft Investigatory Powers Bill would allow the Government to see what sites we visit and when, though not the specific pages of the site.

Records would also need to be kept of apps as well as any other service a computer connects to.

Some, such as Edward Snowden, say the Bill is the "most intrusive and least accountable surveillance regime in the West", but others are more optimistic.

Privacy International, for example, say the Bill has finally kick-started a "true debate on surveillance".

Internet connection records

The idea of the Government and their agencies being able to see what we're doing with our devices is instinctively unappealing.

Home Secretary Theresa May has attempted to make light of the collection of our internet connection records (ICRs) by comparing them to our phone bills.

Like a phone bill, she says, an ICR will provide an itemised list of connections made by a device - but not the specifics of that communication.

Some have reasonably pointed out that the apps and web pages we visit are nothing like a phone bill as they show what we're interested in, and give large clues about what's happening as we go about our lives.

Online lives

We spend a lot of our time online - more than double the amount we did a decade ago.

Indeed, according to Ofcom figures, the average adult internet user now spends more than 20 hours online every week.

Staying safe online
...when communicating
...when looking things up
...when sharing personal information

If hackers were able to access this information, they'd know everything from who we bank with, to when we were likely to be away on holiday, and even if we were looking to form new relationships.

It's not difficult to see how this information could be used for criminal gain.

Adding to the concern is the fact that our ICRs would be held by service providers - such as the recently hacked TalkTalk.

However, there is some reassurance in the proposed Bill - the creation of a new offence of "knowingly or recklessly obtaining communications data".

Anyone found to be doing so - including by failing to take adequate precautions in protecting customer data - will face up to two years in prison.

Reading our emails

The bill would also afford us new protection in the form of a "double lock" system.

If surveillance agencies really want to see the specifics of what we've browsed or said, they'll need to request an intercept warrant.

These must be obtained from one of a panel of senior judges, and only on the grounds of national security, serious crime, or to protect the economic well being of the UK.

In urgent situations the Home Secretary will still be allowed to issue warrants without seeking judicial approval, but these warrants may be vetoed by the Investigatory Powers Commissioner - the most senior of the senior judges mentioned above.

This crucial last step would be a new development, and would take the decision for intrusive surveillance out of the political sphere.

However, once granted, the intercept warrant will uncover far more personal information than it does now.

Internet and social media companies based in the UK must agree to hand over any encryption keys that will allow encrypted messages - such as those sent through multimedia services like WhatsApp and BBM - to be unscrambled.

This, the Government say, will enable the authorities to decrypt messages that could reveal where a missing person - or a criminal - can be found.

A Home Office spokesman said it was vital that intelligence agencies could "access the content of communications of terrorists and criminals in order to resolve police investigations and prevent criminal acts".

But some companies, including Apple and Google, use encryption technology that is undecipherable,even by them - and the requirement to hand over decryption keys can't be imposed on companies based overseas.

Time for change?

No one doubts that the legislation surrounding surveillance needs updating. The last time it happened was 15 years ago - long before the likes of Twitter and Facebook.

The current bill will need to make its way through both the House of Commons and the House of Lords before it can become law.

This is the third draft of this Bill. The last, in 2012, was dubbed the "Snooper's Charter" and blocked by the Liberal Democrats.

Politicians from both sides of the House, including former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, have welcomed the changes made in this draft - but there are still plenty of grey areas in the 299-page document that need clearly defining before it passes into legislation.

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