An alleged leak of a draft technical paper prepared by the U.K. government contains proposals that endorse the “live” surveillance of British web users’ online communications, it emerged this week.
Civil liberties organization the Open Rights Group received the document on May 4 and decided to publish the draft, which states that telecommunications companies and internet service providers would need to provide “data in near real time” within one working day.
The paper, first reported by The Register, also states that technology companies would be required to remove encryption from private communications and provide the raw data “in an intelligible form” without “electronic protection”.
If made law, the capabilities would come under the controversial Investigatory Powers (IP) Act, dubbed the “Snooper’s Charter” by critics. According to the act, the access would have to be sanctioned by secretaries of state and a judge appointed by the prime minister. Telecoms firms would be forced to carry out the requirements in secret, leaving the public unaware that access had been given.
The Home Office has denied there is anything new in the consultation paper, which has reportedly been sent to affected bodies without being publicly announced by the government. However, the document reveals that bulk surveillance would occur simultaneously alongside individual access requests, but would be limited to one in every 10,000 users of a given service – or 6,500 people in the country at any one time.
The leak of the paper has re-opened the debate surrounding law enforcement agencies’ demands for “back doors” in security protocols that would provide access to encrypted data, similar to the request that caused a standoff between the FBI and Apple last year.
“It seems very clear that the Home Office intends to use these [powers] to remove end-to-end encryption – or more accurately to require tech companies to remove it,” said Dr Cian Murphy, a legal expert at the University of Bristol who spoke to the BBC. “I do read the regulations as the Home Office wanting to be able to have near real-time access to web chat and other forms of communication.”
Home Secretary Amber Rudd recently argued that the Investigatory Powers Act offers a set of laws necessary to curb “new opportunities for terrorists” afforded by the internet. However, critics counter that the idea of creating back doors in encrypted communications would render the encryption worthless, since such access would inevitably end up in the hands of bad actors, while appearing as a green light for oppressive regimes to crack down on dissenters by compromising encrypted communications.
The U.K.’s Internet Service Providers’ Association (Ispa), which represents BT, Sky, Virgin Media, TalkTalk and others, said it would be consulting its members and submitting a response to the draft regulations by May 19.