Vodafone, 3, o2, BT, and EE are among several telcos and technology companies to express disquiet at the UK government’s plans to extend surveillance of citizens’ private communications and internet usage. In the run-up to Christmas, the companies told MPs that they were unsure if the proposals were technically feasible. They also voiced concerns over the cost implications of the revised Investigatory Powers Bill, which they believe the government has seriously underestimated. (At just £178 million, Whitehall’s estimates are obvious nonsense.)
These are serious issues for both the UK’s and the world’s digital economy, not to mention for civil liberties. October’s TalkTalk hack demonstrated that although telcos, ISPs, and other service providers will be in the front line of citizens’ data security if the proposals go ahead, they are currently under no obligation to encrypt customer data.
In December, the government announced an enquiry into national data security in the wake of this and other attacks – something it should have done long before contemplating ramping up national surveillance and placing a mishmash of competing private companies, some based overseas, in the vanguard of a national data-gathering programme.
However, one MP believes that it is already too late to scupper the plans. The Greens’ Caroline Lucas, MP for Brighton Pavilion, told UCInsight’s Chris Middleton: “Judging by the response to the Home Secretary’s announcement, very few MPs will be opposing the government – all the other opposition parties spoke in support of the new powers and said they were justified in the fight against terrorism.”
In a written statement to Middleton about the Bill, she warned: “Changing the name of the legislation does not change the fact that it will actively undermine fundamental rights and civil liberties. When governments want to undertake large-scale infringement of the individual’s right to privacy – by allowing records of all our communications to be kept as a matter of course, for example – we need effective parliamentary scrutiny more than ever.”
Lucas promised to fight the plans and to protect citizens’ right to privacy: “I will vote against the Investigatory Powers Bill and will also make every effort to amend it to be in keeping with, for example, EU rulings about the blanket retention of specific data.”
Apple falls on the other side
Lucas’ comments followed Apple’s intervention in the debate. Before Christmas, Apple said: “We believe it is wrong to weaken security for hundreds of millions of law-abiding customers so that it will also be weaker for the very few who pose a threat.”
The company added that the revised Investigatory Powers Bill could also weaken data encryption, interfere with Apple’s and other companies’ products, and force non-UK enterprises to break the laws of the countries in which they are incorporated: a significant objection in a global technology and telecoms market.
For example, 3 is owned by Hong Kong incorporated CK Hutchison Holdings, o2 (ultimately) by Spanish telecoms giant Telefonica, and EE by Orange (France) and Deutsche Telekom. Inevitably, therefore, the plans will bring the UK into conflict with its political partners in Europe and elsewhere.
On this point, the Bill’s remit and purpose is unclear. On the face of it, the revised provisions do not require non-UK-based companies to retain bulk datasets or to remove encryption. However, this would appear to make a nonsense of the proposals, given that some ISPs’, telcos’, or cloud platforms’ customers would be protected from surveillance within the UK’s borders, while others would not. Most customers use a mix of services, platforms, and providers, only some of which – again, on the face of it – would be required to hand over data. Common sense suggests that this alone would be a colossal waste of police resources.
That the stakes are high should be clear from the stance taken by some normally moderate commentators. For example, even stock market insights platform Seeking Alpha said of the government’s proposals: “Once the apparatus is created, the potential exists for it to be perverted in the future for… political control. The surveillance state has always been an essential component of the totalitarian state.” An extraordinary statement for a publication that supplies investment guidance to make.
In its own report on Apple’s objections to the Investigatory Powers Bill, Seeking Alpha said that it believed it would become the model for the surveillance state globally in the future, and that companies such as Apple would be forced to create national data centres in order to comply with local data governance laws – effectively breaking apart the internet into national fiefdoms. Meanwhile, any ban on end-to-end encryption would threaten products such as Apple Pay, it added, and drive encryption technology underground, where it would still be used by criminals.
Let us hope that the government can be persuaded to step back from its plans and reconsider them rather than attempt rush them through Parliament in the coming weeks. The proposals cannot succeed without the support of the technology and communications sectors, and at present there is no evidence that that support exists. Indeed, enterprise UC and cloud giant Microsoft this week announced a new policy of warning users of its Outlook service when it believes that user accounts are being accessed by government agencies – a programme that several other cloud platforms have already initiated.
A government that is ideologically on the side of private enterprise may find that private enterprise has no desire to be a political football in a game that’s being played in the dark.
• You can find Chris Middleton’s in-depth personal critique of the UK’s surveillance plans here.