May rejects claims surveillance bill contains ‘unprecedented powers’
Home secretary insists necessity for foreign firms to comply with UK warrants has always been assumed ‘in government circles’.
The home secretary, Theresa May, has insisted that sweeping new powers in the emergency surveillance bill forcing overseas companies to comply with British intercept warrants have “always been regarded within government circles” as authorised under existing legislation.
May strongly denied on the eve of the legislation going through all its Commons stages in one day claims from a wide range of civil liberties and privacy groups that it contains “sweeping new and unprecedented powers” to extend the reach of state snooping.
The home secretary told the Commons home affairs committee that it had always been assumed “in government circles” that the requirement on overseas companies to comply with British intercept warrants was included in the 2000 Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. She also claimed the same 14-year-old legislation authorised the enforced collection of personal communications data from “a wide range of providers” of internet and phone services.
“In relation to lawful intercept, it is the case that it has always been regarded, from government circles certainly, that Ripa had an ability to operate extra-territorially, i.e. to serve warrant on a provider that’s overseas, and that there was a wide range of providers that came under the definition of Ripa. This has been questioned, and we feel it’s appropriate to, therefore, put that beyond doubt in terms of legislating. But these are powers and capabilities that exist today, that are used today. This is not about extending those to any new remit,” she said.
But May declined when she was repeatedly pressed by Julian Huppert, the Liberal Democrat backbench home affairs spokesman, to tell the MPs how many overseas companies had complied the requirement to hand over personal internet and phone material.
Huppert told the home secretary that even it was not a new power for the authorities, if no overseas company had ever been required to hand over such personal data as a result of an intercept warrant, it would look like a new power.
The home secretary refused to specify how many overseas companies had complied with such intercept warrants saying it was policy not to identify such companies. But after being repeatedly pressed she confirmed that an unspecified number of companies had complied in the past.
May told MPs that the “extra-territoriality powers” contained in clause 4 of the 6 clause bill were designed to “put beyond legal doubt” the power to “serve an intercept warrant overseas” while those in clause 5 which extended the definition of communications data to include webmail and other new forms simply confirmed that “a wide range of providers” had always been covered by the legislation.
Liberty, Privacy International and other campaign groups have warned in a briefing to MPs that these “extra-territorial” powers could provide the legal basis for enabling a number of Tempora-style programmes around the globe. Documents leaked by Edward Snowden disclosed that GCHQ has been tapping into transatlantic fibre-optic cables and storing huge amounts of data for up to 30 days under its Tempora programme.
But the home secretary specifically denied that the emergency legislation would somehow provide legal cover for the kind of programmes that Snowden had dislcosed.
But last night Dr Adrian Davis, the European director of ISC2, the infosecurity professionals body, said the bill’s requirement on overseas companies to build a permanent interception capability into their system could put UK personal data a greater risk from cyber-criminals.
“With the data retention bill increasing the amount of data that must be held and the number of companies that must hold it, we could potentially see more frequent and devastating data breaches in the future,” said Davis.