Review backs bulk data-interception but proposes new ‘tech expert’ panel

A government-ordered review of the Investigatory Powers Bill has supported the security services’ need to harvest data to fight terrorism, but called for the creation of a new expert advisory panel to keep watchdog commissioners and the home secretary up to date on technology

Review says there is a case for providing GCHQ with bulk data powers – Photo credit: PA

Barrister David Anderson, the government’s independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, was tasked with examining the case for granting MI5, MI6 and GCHQ so-called “bulk data powers” to collect information on members of the public, as proposed in the draft legislation.

His report has concluded that there is a is a “proven operational case” for bulk interception of data, principally foreign-focused internet communications; bulk acquisition of data, such as records of phone communications; and the collection of personal data sets, including both openly available and privately-held data. 

Anderson said there was a “distinct, though not yet proven” case for the collection of a fourth category of data included in the bill – bulk equipment interference, which would cover the un-targeted hacking of computers, including smartphones, over a defined area.

Related content

Leaked document alleges MI5 struggled to keep up with data deluge
Bill bans councils from accessing web communications data 

Anderson’s sole recommendation was that a “technical advisory panel” (TAP) of independent academics and industry experts be appointed to advise the Investigatory Powers Commission, which will be created under the legislation to oversee security services’ use of the powers.

According to the review, the expert panel would advise on the impact of changing technology, and on how MI5, MI6 and GCHQ could “reduce the privacy footprint” of their information-gathering activities.

Anderson said he envisaged a small panel of technology experts “with very high security clearance” that would meet a few times a year and support both the commission and the home secretary.

“The TAP would not be involved in the consideration of warrant applications, but would advise in particular on the technological issues,” he said. 

“Those experts should not be employed by government or by the security and intelligence agencies, or have contracts with the SIAs [Security and Intelligence Agencies]. They should be people who are capable of probing the SIAs, explaining difficult concepts to lay decision-makers, and generally contributing to the culture of robust challenge that will be essential to the effective operation of the Investigatory Powers Commission. 

“I envisage a mixture of independent academics and individuals with substantial, current experience of industry.”

Anderson added that people with past connections to the SIAs could be useful panel members, and said he saw no reason why the panel should restrict its work to only the bulk powers examined in the review.

Anderson said he had fought the urge to recommend “trimming” the scope of the bulk powers proposed, on the grounds that technology would always outpace legislation. 

“If the new law is to have any hope of accommodating the evolution of technology over the next 10 or 15 years, it needs to avoid the trap of an excessively prescriptive and technically-defined approach,” he  said.

Prime minister Theresa May, welcomed the findings and said they would inform scrutiny of the draft legislation in the House of Lords.

“Mr Anderson’s report demonstrates how the bulk powers contained in the Investigatory Powers Bill are of crucial importance to our security and intelligence agencies,” she said. 

“These powers often provide the only means by which our agencies are able to protect the British public from the most serious threats that we face. It is vital that we retain them, while ensuring their use is subject to robust safeguards and world-leading oversight which are enshrined in the Investigatory Powers Bill.”

The representative body for tech companies, TechUK, welcomed the proposal to create an independent advisory body, but added that the review had not addressed a number of related questions.

TechUK’s deputy chief exeuctive, Antony Walker, said: “It should be noted that the report doesn’t address questions of necessity and proportionality of bulk powers. Nor does the report address whether the safeguards on bulk powers will satisfy the European Convention on Human Rights or European Union law.

“As the EU-US Privacy Shield agreement highlights, question of compatibility with EU law remains relevant whether the UK is in or outside the European Union.”

Meanwhile, campaign group Liberty said the review was “fatally flawed” and had been rushed into a three month timescale.

“The review panel consisted of former agency staff effectively asked to mark their own homework and a reviewer who has previously advocated in favour of bulk powers,” policy director Bella Sankey said. 

“The report provides no further information to justify the agencies’ vague and hypothetical claims and instead invites the public to ‘trust us’. 

“This was an opportunity to properly consider the range of targeted methods that could be used as effective alternatives to indiscriminate and potentially unlawful powers. That chance has been wasted.”

Jim Dunton

Learn More →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Thank you! Your subscription has been confirmed. You'll hear from us soon.
Subscribe to our newsletter