UK Surveillance Bill Introduced with Rushed Process, Limited Regard for Human Rights Concerns

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The United Kingdom’s new Investigatory Powers Bill has now been formally introduced to the UK Parliament by Home Secretary Theresa May. This introduction comes less than three weeks after a major parliamentary committee tasked with scrutinizing the Bill issued a highly critical report calling for significant changes. Perhaps not surprisingly, the newly published text appears to make few concessions to the serious human rights concerns that Members of Parliament and others have raised.

“It is deeply disappointing that the Home Secretary has chosen to introduce this incredibly important piece of legislation, affecting not only everyone in the UK, but potentially all Internet users worldwide, on such a rushed timeline. While necessary in some cases, secret surveillance strikes at the bedrock of democracy, and the procedures by which this bill is considered should reflect that,” said Sarah St.Vincent, Human Rights and Surveillance Legal Fellow at the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT). “Although there appear to be a few improvements to the Judicial Commissioner system, an initial reading suggests that the government has disregarded nearly all other human rights concerns.”

“We urge the UK Parliament to review this bill closely and greatly enhance the crucial human rights safeguards that are clearly lacking,” said Matthew Shears, Director of Global Internet Policy at CDT.

The UK government drafted the Investigatory Powers Bill in an effort to consolidate and clarify the surveillance powers enjoyed by the country’s intelligence and law enforcement authorities, and to update existing surveillance laws adopted in 2000. The rarity of new comprehensive surveillance legislation in the UK, as well as the country’s influence on other nations that conduct secret surveillance, make the Bill one of the most important pieces of surveillance law to be considered globally.

The Bill has very serious shortcomings, including provisions for equipment interference (also known as hacking) on a potentially vast scale, the collection of individuals’ web browsing histories, and bulk or otherwise potentially large-scale interception of the content of private conversations. Moreover, while the Bill makes some minor improvements to the system for authorizing surveillance, which would rely upon a new body of “Judicial Commissioners,” the structure of the body continues to raise a serious risk that it will not be sufficiently independent and that its decision-making will be inherently slanted in favor of the government.

“The numerous provisions of the Bill, permitting the UK surveillance authorities to conduct secret monitoring extraterritorially, should raise serious concerns for Internet users worldwide,” Shears concluded.

The Bill will now be scrutinized by the House of Commons before being transmitted to the House of Lords later in the year.

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