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Theresa May rules out keeping web browsing data

Security agencies will not be given powers to look at a suspect’s website browsing history under new laws, Home Secretary Theresa May has said.

She also told the BBC that companies would not be banned from encrypting data, as she prepares to present a new security bill to Parliament this week.

The bill will allow agencies to see who has spoken to whom, and when.

Former head of GCHQ Sir David Omand has called for internet firms to be forced by law to keep users’ browsing history.

He said such data was not for spying on the public but to see “for example, whether a suspect has downloaded a terrorist manual”.

‘Strong oversight’

Mrs May told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show that more intrusive powers were available to agencies if a warrant was authorised.

She said she would set out the “very strong” oversight and “world-beating” authorisation arrangements for such warrants when the Investigatory Powers Billgoes before MPs on Wednesday.

Some of the more contentious powers proposed in the Coalition government’s 2012 version of this bill have been removed after listening to industry figures and civil liberties’ groups, Mrs May said.

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Sir David Omand
Image captionSir David Omand was director of GCHQ from 1996-97

More than 1,400 warrants authorising more intrusive measures cross the home secretary’s desk a year, and she sets aside several hours a day to consider them, she said.

Ministers have looked at all the arguments about handing over this responsibility to independent judges and the decision will be announced on Wednesday, Mrs May added.

“Encryption is important for people to be able to keep themselves safe when they are dealing with these modern communications in the digital age but we will be setting out the current position, which does enable the authorities with proper authorisation to issue warrants,” she added.

‘Over-hysterical’ reaction

Shadow home secretary Andy Burnham said there was a “broad acceptance” that a new law was needed and warned against an “over-hysterical” reaction which could leave the UK with an outdated system.

He and Sir Keir Starmer – former director of public prosecutions and current Labour shadow minister – said a judge should be in charge of allowing warrants, not a politician.

Conservative MP David Davis agreed, saying many of the civil liberty issues with the bill could be tackled by making sure an independent judge authorised any warrants.

“It can’t be the policeman in the office next door or a spook in the office next door and it can’t be the home secretary. It’s got to be independent,” he said.

Without judicial authorisation, he said he did not think the bill would get through Parliament.

Former Liberal Democrat leader Lord Ashdown said Mrs May’s comments suggested that the “worst aspects” of the previous version of the bill had been diminished.

“The bill looks to me as though it will be far, far better than many imagined it would be,” he told Sky News’s Murnaghan programme.

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But he warned that if the bill imposed blanket surveillance and did not have judicial oversight built in, the Lib Dems would seek to amend it in the House of Lords.

Major headache

The bill has been dubbed by some a “snoopers’ charter” and privacy campaigners have vowed to fight any attempt to force companies to keep users’ data.

Sir David, who was previously director of GCHQ – Britain’s communications surveillance centre – said the new legislation did not need to grant “significant new powers”.

But he added: “The one area is the question of, should the internet companies be compelled to retain communications data or metadata, including the web history? I think it is necessary.”

The emergence of encryption has been identified as a major headache for law enforcement bodies, with suggestions that it risks leaving them locked out of some areas of cyberspace.

There has been major growth in the use of encrypted apps which encode messages in a way that makes it harder for a third party to intercept the content.

With apps such as Apple’s iMessage and WhatsApp, the service providers have no way to decrypt the messages users send.

Instead, a technique called end-to-end encryption employed by the apps means that only the sender and recipient can see what was posted.


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