Home Office chiefs are facing a furious backlash from MPs and civil liberties campaigners after teaming-up with UK internet providers to test ways to track people’s browsing history.
In a move described by one MP as a ‘spectacular invasion of privacy’, the Home Office and the National Crime Agency (NCA) have jointly conducted a secretive trial which allows them to obtain information on what internet sites people have visited.
If the scheme is a success, it could be rolled-out nationwide, critics warn.
The trial, said to have involved two unnamed internet providers, uses powers from the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 – dubbed the ‘Snooper’s Charter’.
It allows the Government to request Internet Connection Records (ICRs) from telecoms companies.
These records contain websites a person has visited – though not specifically what they have done on those websites.
The trial, which has reportedly been going on for months, has been shrouded in secrecy – so much so that the internet providers involved cannot be identified.
The Home Office said the trial was ‘small scale’ and in its early stages. It is understood the trial is looking at what data might be able to be acquired, how useful it is and how it could be used.
The emergence of the trial has reignited rumbling privacy concerns, with campaigners saying the trial gives security officials the ‘most intrusive monitoring system of any democracy in history’.
Meanwhile, MPs tonight expressed fears that this latest step could eventually lead to a mass invasion of privacy.
Former Conservative Party chairman, David Davis MP, said the move was a ‘spectacular invasion of privacy’ and warned it could be misused to target individuals or groups who opposed the government.
He told MailOnline: ‘If they are going to do this, what are they going to do with the data they collect? The scope for it to be used for pressure or for blackmail is enormous.
‘The problem is not just how the data will be used but the storage of it as well. If hackers are able to get into the Pentagon, it could end up being an enormous honey-pot.’
Social media users also responded to the news by suggesting the move resembled something out of George Orwell’s dystopian novel ‘1984’.
Privacy rights groups have slammed the government for testing out ‘snooping powers’ by teaming up with two internet providers to track websites visited by their customers
The act allows the secretary of state to make an internet provider keep their records for up to a year, with a judge’s approval. These records can include which websites their customers visit and how much data they download – but it will not show the exact content they looked at on the sites (stock photo)
The Investigatory Powers Act allows the Home Secretary, subject to a senior judge’s approval, to compel an internet provider to keep their records for up to a year.
But it must be under the suspicion of a ‘serious crime’ – one that could attract the minimum of a 12-month sentence.
The ‘serious crime’ element was added in 2018 after the UK’s Court of Appeal ruled that the Government’s previous legislation breached people’s rights by collecting internet activity and phone records with no suspicion of ‘serious crime’ and no independent sign-off.
Judicial Commissioners: Who are they and what do they do?
There are currently 11 Judicial Commissioners in the Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office.
The Judicial Commissioners provide independent authorisation and oversight of certain investigatory powers – such as the Investigatory Powers Act – used by intelligence agencies, police forces and other public authorities.
The current head is Sir Brian Leveson, the now retired judge who chaired the inquiry into British press ethics – a review that famously carried his name.
Former High Court judge Sir Adrian Fulford is also a Judicial Commissioner.
Appointments are made by the Prime Minister and candidates must hold or have held a senior judicial appointment. When filled, there should be 13 commissioners in total. Two more are set to be appointed following a selection process in Autumn last year.
One unnamed Judicial Commissioner is said to have approved the trial of Internet Connection Records in July 2019, before approving another in October.
The Judicial Commissioner is said to have sought and received advice from the Technology Advisory Panel as part of his consideration of these two applications for the retention of ICRs.
The Investigatory Powers Commissioner also announced plans to appoint 13 judicial commissioners to provide independent oversight of surveillance.
The records that can be collected include which websites customers visit and how much data they download – but the data will not show the exact pages they visited.
For example, it would show that a person has visited MailOnline, but not what articles a person has viewed.
However, even restricting the data to basic metadata could still reveal a lot about a person’s habits, including where they shop, their political views and if they use pornography.
First revealed in WIRED magazine, the trial of the powers was not formally announced or publicised, but was referenced in a 168-page report from the Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office (Ipco).
The report said the Judicial Commissioner had provided approval for a network operator to retain communication data ‘for the purposes of a trial’ back in 2019. Another request was approved later the same year.
A spokesman for the Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office said that the trial is ongoing and it is conducting regular reviews to ‘ensure that the data types collected remain necessary and proportionate’.
It added that once the trial has been fully assessed, a decision will be made on whether the system will be expanded nationally.
The passage of the Investigatory Powers Act was spearheaded by then-home secretary Theresa May who argued the updated surveillance powers were needed to keep the public safe and to help the police and security services combat crime and terrorism.
But privacy campaigners have long opposed the legislation and the emergence of the trial of the powers prompted an immediate outcry.
Silkie Carlo, from civil liberties and privacy campaigning organisation, Big Brother Watch, told MailOnline: ‘We fought tooth and nail against these plans to put the nation’s internet records at the fingertips of authorities, from police officers to DWP and even NHS trusts.
‘We have absolutely no problem with robust targeted powers being used against identified suspects, but there is no justification for intruding in the private lives of the entire population.
‘The purposes for which ICRs can be accessed are excessively broad and could easily result in political surveillance.
‘The purposes include ‘preventing disorder’, minor communications offences, protecting public health, public safety and collecting tax.
‘Whilst drumming it into the public if we have nothing to hide we should have nothing to fear, the state has grown totalitarian-style surveillance powers and built the most intrusive monitoring system of any democracy in history.’
Heather Burns, policy manager for the digital rights organisation Open Rights Group, said: ‘It’s needles in haystacks, and this is collecting the entire haystack.
‘We should have the right to not have every single click of what we do online hoovered up into a surveillance net on the assumption that there might be criminal activity taking place.’
How is the Government using the ‘Snooper’s Charter’ and why is it controversial?
The passage of the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 caused a political storm at the time as ministers argued it was necessary to keep people safe but critics said it represented a significant threat to privacy and civil liberties.
Concerns about the surveillance measures contained within the act have now been reignited after the emergence of the trial of some of the powers.
The legislation allows the Home Secretary, with a judge’s approval, to order internet providers to keep electronic data relating to browsing activity for 12 months.
This data can then be subsequently collected and used by the police and security services to combat crime.
The powers are particularly controversial because their use is shrouded in secrecy.
For example, internet providers subject to an order are not allowed to identify themselves.
The nature of the data collected is also of concern to campaigners because it can include a user’s IP address and the websites they visit.
The data will not show the actual content of what has been viewed but critics argue that what is collected still represents an invasion of privacy.
Privacy International’s advocacy director, Edin Omanovic, echoed a similar sentiment and said: ‘Make no mistake, as warned, the Investigatory Powers Act (2016) gives authorities across the UK some of the most far-reaching and draconian surveillance powers found anywhere in the world.
‘When the Bill was proposed, we were promised the most transparent surveillance regime in the world. Yet, here we have a secret experiment where two secret internet companies have reportedly been collecting internet browsing data about individuals’ online activities.
‘When the Home Office first made its demands public, it was obvious that what it wanted was highly vague and likely to be technically impractical. Five years later, it looks like they’re still trying to bend technical reality around their demands.
‘When the IPA was being debated, Privacy International argued that the collection and retention of internet records was not necessary or proportionate. The Home Office’s justification for these powers did not consider the full impact on individuals’ privacy.
‘The Home Office should now come clean and reveal who is involved in this experiment, what exactly they are hoping to achieve, and how many innocent internet users’ histories will be swept up by this covert, indiscriminate, mass-surveillance system.’
Sir Ed Davey, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, said: ‘The Government hoovering up huge amounts of data on everyone’s internet use is not only an unacceptable invasion of our privacy, it’s also a very ineffective way of tackling crime and terrorism.
‘Yet again, Conservative ministers are trying to seem tough on crime, but failing to do what actually works to prevent crime and keep people safe.
‘They are eroding people’s civil liberties with draconian new powers, instead of giving our police and security services the resources they need to do their jobs properly and responsibly.
‘Liberal Democrats are fighting to build a free society where every person’s rights and liberties are protected. That’s why we opposed the Snooper’s Charter from the start and are calling on the Government to stop this bulk collection of people’s internet records now.’
The emergence of the trial prompted a similarly hostile reaction from some users on social media.
One user said: ‘Snooper’s charter is nothing to do with catching criminals it is all about identifying opposition to the government. They want to be just like China and crack down.’
Another added: ‘Everything’s getting rather 1984 ain’t it.’
It was reported that the National Crime Agency has spent around £130,000 on external contracts to build technical systems needed to run the trials.
‘We are supporting the Home Office sponsored trial of Internet Connection Record capability to determine the technical, operational, legal and policy considerations associated with delivery of this capability,’ a spokesman for the National Crime Agency said.