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Police Get More Access to Citizens' Browsing Data Under Revised UK Law

The Investigatory Powers Bill entered Parliament on Tuesday, with some changes from earlier drafts.

by Joseph Cox
Mar 1 2016, 4:40pm

Image: Aleksandr Stepanov/Shutterstock

On Tuesday, the UK's controversial proposed surveillance legislation was entered into Parliament, ushering it into the next stage of becoming a law. Following scrutiny by three government committees, the Investigatory Powers Bill has undergone some fairly significant changes.

One of those is an expansion to law enforcement access to so-called internet connection records (ICRs).

ICRs are one of the most contentious parts of the proposed law. The Bill will force internet service providers to store browsing data of all customers for 12 months, with these records including information on websites a user visits and services they connect to, such as WhatsApp.

The Bill will now allow police to obtain web browsing records even if they don't include visits to illegal websites or interactions with communication services, as was laid out in an earlier draft of the Bill.

Police will still only be able to access ICRs if they are necessary and proportionate for a specific investigation, a supplementary government document published alongside the Bill states. The expansion came in response to a recommendation by the Joint Committee, one of the government bodies which analysed the draft Bill.

In a new definition, the Home Office describes ICRs as "a record, comprised of a number of items of communications data, of an event about the service to which a customer has connected to on the internet, such as a website or instant messaging application."

Critics have said that the definition of ICRs is so vague that it may encompass all sorts of things beyond messaging services, such as computers communicating with update servers.

Other changes to the Bill include an expansion to hacking powers for law enforcement. These powers can now be used in cases involving a "threat to life," and "damage to somebody's mental health," as opposed to only the detection or prevention of serious crime.

But despite the changes, some MPs claim that the Bill is being rushed through Parliament. The final report of the third committee looking into the law published its findings on the draft in February.

"The new legislation needs to be in force by 31 December 2016 in order to ensure that powers which are essential to counter the threat from criminals and terrorists do not lapse," Home Secretary Theresa May said in a statement accompanying the publication of the Bill. "By introducing it now, we have ensured that this important piece of legislation will be subject to full and thorough scrutiny by both Houses of Parliament, following the normal Parliamentary timetable."

The Bill has just entered the House of Commons. It will now be read a second time, before further analysis from committees, and then entered into the House of Lords.

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