Britain seeks greater access to citizens' online activity

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

LONDON (AP) — The British government plans to make telecommunications firms keep records of customers' Web histories and help spies hack into computers and phones under a new cyber-snooping law unveiled Wednesday.

The draft Investigatory Powers Bill is intended to replace a patchwork of laws, some dating from the Web's infancy, and set the limits of surveillance in the digital age.

Home Secretary Theresa May said the new rules would give security services a "license to operate" in the Internet era — but privacy groups called them a license to snoop.

If approved by Parliament, the bill will let police and spies access Internet connection records — a list of websites and social media apps someone has visited, though not the individual pages they looked at or the messages they sent.

Communications companies will be required to hold onto the data for up to a year, and police can seek warrants to look at them as part of criminal or terrorism investigations.

May said the data was "simply the modern equivalent of an itemized phone bill," but civil liberties groups said the proposed law marked a big expansion of snooping powers.

Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, said the bill was "an attempt to grab even more intrusive surveillance powers and does not do enough to restrain the bulk collection of our personal data by the secret services."

The bill gives explicit legal blessing to intelligence agencies' long-secret powers to intercept communications — details of which were made public by U.S. National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden.

It allows for "equipment interference" — scooping data straight from computers and smartphones — as a crime-fighting tool, and says service providers will be legally obliged to assist authorities in getting access to customers' devices.

It also allows spy agencies to engage in bulk collection of data "in the interests of national security."

Both the home secretary and a judge will have to approve warrants for that kind of serious intrusion — one of several new measures May said would provide "some of the strongest protections and safeguards anywhere in the democratic world."

The bill will be reviewed by a committee of legislators before it's submitted to Parliament for approval. A previous version of the legislation was thrown out by lawmakers in 2013 as overly intrusive.