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Britain Announces Plan to Update Surveillance Laws

Stirring a fraught debate about the balance between security and privacy, the British government on Wednesday proposed tougher scrutiny over snooping by spy agencies, but also said it wanted technology companies to store data about every Briton's Internet use for a year.

The far-reaching set of proposals, made by the home secretary, Theresa May, is devised to streamline and clarify the law, bringing up to date a patchwork of different legislation drafted while the digital era was in its infancy.

Speaking in Parliament, Ms. May told lawmakers that she wanted to apply "new standards for openness, transparency and oversight" to a body of law widely criticized as incoherent and incomprehensible, and promised "world-leading oversight arrangements" for intelligence agencies.

But human rights campaigners argued that the proposed bill posed new threats to privacy, and Shami Chakrabarti, director of the civil liberties group Liberty, described it as a "breathtaking attack on the Internet security of every man, woman and child in our country."

Although public support for the spy agencies is stronger in Britain than in some other European nations, the information leaked by Edward J. Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor, about wholesale surveillance has prompted concerns about the extent of electronic spying and surveillance.

British law is widely regarded as opaque, and David Anderson, a senior lawyer who is Britain's independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, warned this year that changes were needed. If things remain as they are, he said, the public could "become disenchanted with the whole business of intelligence gathering" and intelligence agencies would "lose the public confidence that they actually need."

Mr. Anderson submitted one of three reports that Ms. May took into consideration before drafting her proposals. One of his main requests was to change the way in which interception warrants for British spy agencies are granted by a senior government minister, usually by the home secretary or the foreign secretary.

Under the government's proposal presented on Wednesday, such interception warrants would first be authorized by a senior minister, but would then be approved by a serving or retired judge.

In urgent cases, the intervention might proceed with only ministerial approval, but judicial authorization would have to follow within five days or the operation would have to cease. By retaining a central role for cabinet ministers, Ms. May said that her proposed "double lock" system would retain democratic legitimacy because politicians were accountable for their decisions in Parliament.

More controversial are the plans to require British technology companies to store details about the websites and applications that people use, expanding significantly the stock of data that law enforcement and other agencies may be able to mine.

The information would be available to the police and other government agencies, and although approval for access would be required from senior officers, there would be no need to obtain a judicial warrant in most cases.

Government officials say that this would not constitute a complete browsing history; one example given was that companies would have to record that a user had logged into a Hotmail account, but not whether they had then sent an email from it.

There would be some additional procedures for those applying to gain access to records from members of some professions in which confidentiality is often necessary, including doctors, lawyers and lawmakers. Applications made to identify or confirm a journalist's source would need the authorization of a current or former judge.

Aware of concerns that such powers might be abused, Ms. May said that they would only be used when "necessary and proportionate," and that local government officials would not be allowed access to such data under her plan.

Still, that element of the draft bill was questioned, not just by privacy campaigners, but also by Mr. Anderson, who said in a cautiously worded statement that it "needs to be asked whether there is sufficient independence in procedures for access to communications data."

The government says that after consultations over the draft bill it will introduce a revised version early next year. It would then need to be approved by both houses of Parliament.

Bulk interception of communications, which officials say is currently legal, would also be given a clear basis in law, although warrants would be required and only security and intelligence agencies would be able to apply for them.

Cian Murphy, a legal expert at King's College, London, said that there were "positive developments," in the proposals.

"The move toward a judicial role in the authorization of surveillance is welcome," Mr. Murphy said, "but the mechanism requires study."

[Source: By Stephen Castle, The New York Times, London, 04Nov15]

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Privacy and counterintelligence
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