Has the science and technology committee struck a blow against the Investigatory Powers Bill?

As an organiser for Open Rights Group Birmingham, I have followed with interest and not a little weariness the twists and turns as the government’s draft Investigatory Powers Bill makes its way through the pre-legislative scrutiny phase.

Today, the House of Commons science and technology committee published a highly critical report on the bill, with its chair, Nicola Blackwood MP commenting:

The current lack of clarity within the draft Investigatory Powers Bill is causing concern amongst businesses. There are widespread doubts over the definition, not to mention the definability, of a number of the terms used in the draft Bill. The Government must urgently review the legislation so that the obligations on the industry are clear and proportionate.

In particular, the report highlights the following problems:

  • The feasibility of collecting and storing Internet Connection Records ICRs – including the very real problem of keeping these highly personal records from (non state-sanctioned) hackers.
  • Anxiety amongst communication¬† providers over the ability to use effective encryption, which Blackwood recognises is “important in providing the secure services on the internet we all rely on“. The committee particularly wants the government to provide greater clarity over the status of end-to-end encrypted communications, where decryption might not be possible by a communications provider that had not added the original encryption.
  • Concerns amongst certain communications over ‘equipment interference’. For some providers, such as Mozilla (the makers of Firefox), this concern appears to stem from a genuine concern for its users’ privacy and the integrity of the internet. For other providers, the concern is more about how a perception of hacking could hurt their competitiveness in a global market for services.
  • Uncertainty over costs. Coverage of the committee’s report has downplayed the risk associated with spiralling implementation costs, both for government and businesses. At last cost, the Home Secretary has put the cost of implementing the new ICR system at ¬£247 million but the report notes that costs are likely to change (i.e. rise), given the uncertainty and rapid pace of technological change.

It’s worth noting that the committee’s remit was purely to look at the technical feasibility of the government’s proposals and how these might affect communications businesses, not whether the communications monitoring provisions or whether they are proportionate to the threats they are intended to deal with. These issues are expected to be addressed by the joint committe Joint Committee established to scrutinise the draft Bill as a whole.

I believe the criticisms levelled at the bill in this report are significant for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, by focusing solely on the technical feasibility of implementing the bill, it manages to side-step the highly polarised debate between privacy and security advocates. This report says, irrespective of your views on the merits of expanded monitoring of communications, you should be concerned as a citizen and taxpayer about the feasibility of implementing the government’s plans at anything approaching a sensible level of expenditure.

Secondly, by holding up the prospect that the Investigatory Powers Bill will do real harm to the growing UK tech sector, the report will hopefully encourage the government to modify its approach, if only to protect its supposed reputation for business confidence.

Both these signals – questions over the feasability of implementation and the likely damage to the UK’s growing tech sector – will not¬† in itself be enough to stop the Investigatory Powers Bill becoming law, but it’s a start.

The Joint Committee is due to deliver its full report on the Investigatory Powers Bill no later than 17 February. It will be interesting to see whether this committee takes a similarly critical stance on the merits of expanded monitoring provisions and the limited amount of time the committee was given to scrutinise the bill.

Cost of Investigatory Powers Bill could undermine UK Tech sector – full details of science and technology committee report

Science and Technology Committee of Parliament slams Snoopers’ Charter – Open Rights Group’s reaction to the committee’s report

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