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January 14, 2016updated 31 Aug 2016 10:12am

Theresa May fails to give clarity on Snoopers’ Charter surveillance

News: Home Secretary only offers letter to follow up.

By Charlotte Henry

Theresa May has said that the UK’s new Investigatory Powers Bill, dubbed a Snoopers’ Charter by critics, will give the Government the power to engage in Bulk Equipment Interference, but failed to give much clarity while denying that the government engages in mass surveillance.

The home secretary, appearing before a committee of Lords and MPs, said: "There will be cases where it’s necessary to use [Bulk Equipment Interference] to keep pace with those who want to do us harm, where it’s not impossible to disrupt and intervene on activities through interception."

She denied to the committee that the government is carrying out mass surveillance, saying: "The UK does not undertake mass surveillance, we have not and we do not undertake mass surveillance and that’s not what the Investigatory Powers Bill is about."

May failed to give any real clarity on this or what the significance of the legislation would be in terms of mass surveillance enforcement, offering only to follow up to the committee in writing.

One of the most controversial elements of the Bill is the element allowing for encryption backdoors, a law designed to facilitate surveillance on encrypted communications such as WhatsApp.

Daniel Nesbitt, research director of Big Brother Watch said "The Government has repeatedly failed to make the case for bulk personal datasets.

"Little to no evidence has been presented to show how these powers can be used, whether they are actually helpful to the intelligence services or even what kind of information will be collected.

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"If there is to be a proper debate on the issue more information needs to be released, without this neither the public nor parliamentarians will be able to properly judge whether or not the potential usefulness of these powers will outweigh the very real intrusion they may represent.

The debate around the proposed backdoors to encryption, which has been raging in recent days, has seen the Dutch government most recently rejecting calls for backdoors and advocating strong encryption.

This echoes many in the security industry who feel that backdoors would only serve to weaken encryption and allow not just government access to communications, but hackers too.

Dr Nithin Thomas, Co-Founder and CEO of SQR Systems said: "The UK is a world leader in developing innovative encryption technology, and we have now reached a point where it is possible to ensure protection for sensitive data without impeding urgent criminal investigations.

"As stated by the Dutch government last week, strong encryption is absolutely vital for the privacy and security of the entire country, from individuals and businesses to the state itself. Both private enterprises and the government must explore all options that would enable encryption to be kept strong while addressing the growing concerns around communications between terrorists and criminals."

Major tech firms such as Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, and Yahoo have also united against the legislation, saying in a joint statement: "We reject any proposals that would require companies to deliberately weaken the security of their products via backdoors, forced decryption, or any other means."

The firms have also been highly critical about how vague they consider the legislation to be. Yesterday, May tried to counter those criticisms, saying that the language was trying to strike a balance.

"We’re trying to craft legislation which will operate in what can be quite fast-moving technological world where things are developing. And the more you prescribe specific definitions, then the harder it becomes and the shorter the life of the legislation is likely to be," she said.

Public opinion is shifting towards the government though, with a recent survey showing 63% of Brits back internet surveillance, despite the fact 67% do not trust their internet service provider to keep their data safe.

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