Theresa May vague on government’s encryption plans during Snoopers’ Charter scrutiny

Theresa May commits to encryption plans, although details remain vague

Concerns from technology firms that the UK government wants to weaken encryption or install ‘backdoor’ access into software are unfounded, according to UK home secretary Theresa May.

“There has been some commentary which has not accurately reflected what we are intending to do in the bill,” May said while giving evidence to the Select Committee set up to scrutinise the draft Investigatory Powers Bill.

“We believe encryption is important…we are not proposing to make any changes in relation to the position on encryption.”

Despite these claims, the Investigatory Powers Bill, also branded a Snoopers’ Charter by critics, contains plans that would allow police and intelligence agencies to “reduce electronic protection”, the definition of which still lacks clarity.

And when pressed on the topic of strong encryption by the committee, and how it is used by technology giants such as Google, Microsoft and Facebook to protect customer communications, May somewhat skirted the issue.

“Where we are lawfully serving a warrant on a provider […] they are required to provide certain information to the authorities, the company should take reasonable steps to ensure they are able comply with the warrant. That is the position today and it will be the same tomorrow under the new legislation,” she said.

However this is unlikely to curb the fears of many technology firms, many of which offer end-to-end messaging applications such iMessage or WhatsApp. These systems use strong encryption that even the firms are unable to decipher.

This, according to May, is unacceptable. “Under this legislation when a warrant is served they will be expected to take responsible steps to comply,” she repeated.

The bill, which would shake up the surveillance and data interception powers available to the police and intelligence agencies, contains a slew of heightened powers including bulk data collection, computer hacking and the mass retention of internet records (ICRs).

However the home secretary’s appearance in Parliament follows a backlash-of-sorts from technology firms operating in the UK which deem the bill’s proposals to be invasive and overreaching.

Apple has raised concerns over suspicions the government seeks to weaken encryption, Mozilla branded the bill “broad and dangerous” while techUK, which represents over 850 tech companies, publicly slammed the collection of ICRs.

Most recently, technology giants including Microsoft, Google and Facebook took a more coordinated approach, stating in a joint written submission that the bill will have “far-reaching implications” for customers in the UK.

Theresa May has been a long-time advocate of increased surveillance powers and, as a result, has faced strong opposition from privacy campaigners and civil right groups for her stance.

In one stunt last year, the Home Office was hit with a Freedom of Information (FoI) request in early November asking for the publication of Theresa May’s email and telephone metadata, including the “date, time, and recipient” of every email, phone call, Skype call and website visited throughout October and November.

Over a month later, on the 16 December, the Home Office refused the request as it was deemed “vexatious”.

“We have decided that your request is vexatious because it places an unreasonable burden on the department, because it has adopted a scattergun approach and seems solely designed for the purpose of ‘fishing’ for information without any idea of what might be revealed,” stated the written response.

While the full cost of the extended collection and storage is yet to be finalised, initial estimates from the Home Office said it will cost the UK taxpayer £174m over the next 10 years.

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13 January 2016 | 6:07 pm – Source:


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