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'The UK Does Not Undertake Mass Surveillance,' Says UK Home Secretary

Theresa May was challenged by MPs on controversial proposed surveillance laws.
Theresa May giving evidence at the meeting. Image: Parliament Live

Theresa May, the UK's Home Secretary, defended the country's bulk interception capabilities on Wednesday, saying that they do not constitute mass surveillance.

"The UK does not undertake mass surveillance," she said when questioned by MPs about the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, a controversial piece of proposed surveillance legislation. "We have not, and we do not, undertake mass surveillance, and that is not what the Investigatory Powers Bill is about."


Over the last few months, the Joint Committee on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill has heard evidence from law enforcement, internet service providers (ISPs), tech giants, human rights activists, and other experts. The draft bill, if passed into law, would force ISPs to store the browsing histories of all customers for 12 months, and would also give much stronger legal grounding to the country's already-established surveillance programs.

"We do not collect all of the data, all of the time," May told the committee when asked about the UK's existing bulk collection programs in the evidence session on Wednesday.

May refused to give any details about so-called "bulk personal data sets" that the authorities have access to. These may include sensitive medical records and bank accounts.

"As soon as you start excluding certain data sets, then that gives messages to those who would seek to do us harm about the way in which the authorities operate," May said, and deflected further questions by emphasising the new oversight mechanisms that are being proposed to regulate the access to such data as part of the proposed bill.

"We do not collect all of the data, all of the time"

Lord Strasburger, one particularly vocal committee member who challenged May, referenced evidence given by William Binney, the former Technical Director of the US National Security Agency (NSA), who said that US and British intelligence analysts have become swamped with so much data that they have become inefficient at picking out legitimate threats.


May, however, claimed that "Bulk capabilities are important, because if you're going to be able to investigate a target you need to be able to acquire the communications in the first place."

"When the target is overseas, bulk interception is obviously one of the key means, and indeed it may be the only means by which it's possible to obtain communications," she said.

Strasburger asked for an "operational case" to demonstrate why bulk interception could be required. "I think there a number of reasons why it is important to have these various bulk powers," said May, but didn't provide any specific examples. She said she would provide more evidence to the committee in writing.

Strasburger said such justification had been provided for the collection of Internet Connection Records (ICRs)—the new data that will be stockpiled by ISPs under the Bill—but not for bulk interception and other mass surveillance powers. For ICRs, the justification was, in part, that law enforcement capabilities are degrading because an increasing amount of communications take place online.

Strasburger said that the UK's bulk powers have been used for some time and have "never been approved by parliament."