UK Government passes spy bill with strong majority

Lady Justice On The Old Bailey, LondonThe House of Commons has voted in favour of the Investigatory Powers Bill which gives UK intelligence agencies greater power to examine browsing histories and hack phones, reports

The bill, which now passes through to the House of Lords, has been under scrutiny since last year, with the latest version being reviewed since March. The original version of the bill, known as the ‘Snooper’s Charter’ by critics, came up against strong opposition from a host of technology companies who have registered privacy concerns. The bill itself will require technology companies to collect and store data on customers, while also allowing intelligence agencies to remotely access smartphones and other devices.

“The Bill provides a clear and transparent basis for powers already in use by the security and intelligence services, but there need to be further safeguards,” said, Harriet Harman, MP for Camberwell and Peckham and Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. “Protection for MP communications from unjustified interference is vital, as it is for confidential communications between lawyers and clients, and for journalists’ sources, the Bill must provide tougher safeguards to ensure that the Government cannot abuse its powers to undermine Parliament’s ability to hold the Government to account.”

Although proposed by the Conservative party, the bill was strongly supported by the Labour party as well as the majority of the commons, with opposition primarily coming from the Scottish National Party. Despite privacy and civil rights concerns from the SNP, the bill passed with a vote of 444 to 69. The vote in the House of Lords is expected to take place in the next couple of months with the bill being passed to law in January 2017.

The bill was deemed as a high priority for intelligence agencies within the UK, it has been under scrutiny from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, after concerns it could potentially violate privacy and civil rights. As part of the review, extended protection will also granted to lawyers and journalists.

“The Joint Committee heard from 59 witnesses in 22 public panels,” said Victoria Atkins, MP for Louth and Horncastle, speaking on behalf of the Joint Committee on Human Rights and the Bill Committee. “We received 148 written submissions, amounting to 1,500 pages of evidence. We visited the Metropolitan police and GCHQ, and we made 87 recommendations, more than two thirds of which have been accepted by the Home Office.”

One of the initial concerns was a permanently open backdoor which could be accessed by intelligence agencies without oversight, which has seemingly been addressed. Intelligence agencies will have to request access, which will be granted should it not be too complicated or expensive. What the definition of complicated or expensive has not been given, however it does appear to end concerns of a government ‘all-access-pass’. Whether this is enough of a concession for the technology companies remains to be seen.