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UK government should retain mass surveillance powers, says report

An "undemocratic" and "unnecessary" patchwork of laws that facilitate the UK government's use of mass surveillance should be abandoned in favour of new legislation "drafted from scratch." That's the conclusion of a new, independent review commissioned by the government, which broadly supports the current powers available to intelligence services.

However, the team led by David Anderson is also suggesting fundamental changes that would do more to protect citizens. Instead of ministers having the final say, warrants needed to intercept our communications and, specifically, the content of our calls and messages would be considered and authorised by a new Independent Surveillance and Intelligence Commission (ISIC). The body would consist of serving and retired senior judges, who would weigh whether each intrusion is both necessary and appropriate. The report also calls for "a tighter definition" of scenarios where warrants can be approved.

The second wave of proposals concern communications data, which covers only the circumstances for which a message or call is made. Typically, this means the date, people and location relevant to our conversations. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), first introduced in 2000, has slowly been expanded to allow a host of government bodies, including local authorities, to request this kind of data. It's led to numerous reports suggesting that these powers are being misused -- today's report suggests that all "minor" cases should be handled by independent staff at the National Anti-Fraud Network.

In addition, the "designated persons" that are required to authorise the collection of communications data in each public body would need to be redefined. At the moment, the only requirement is a senior rank, but under the report's new proposals, they would also need to be independent from the case tied to each application. It would mean that in the police force, for instance, a superintendent could only approve an application if they hadn't been involved in the case themselves. In theory, this would ensure the person weighing each application is objective and makes fair, balanced decisions. The report also suggests that requests deemed novel or contentious should be referred to the new ISIC.

Privacy advocates will no doubt be alarmed that the type of data and the overall extent of the government's surveillance powers have been endorsed today. Although the internal processes would change, the report supports the requirement that service providers retain your communications data for 12 months. It also suggests that the retention of data about broader "internet activity," put forward in the controversial Snoopers Charter, "would be useful" with the appropriate safeguards. It sets up a contentious foundation for the new Investigatory Powers Bill which Theresa May hopes to introduce later this year.

[Image Credit: Barry Batchelor/PA WIRE]