Top US tech firms battle UK surveillance bill

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The biggest U.S. tech powers have joined forces to oppose a proposed British surveillance law that could give government investigators greater access to encrypted digital data.

The draft measure, known as the Investigator Powers Bill, would require Internet companies to retain customers’ Web activity for up to a year and compel them to help investigators access that data upon request.

In a joint submission to a committee of British lawmakers, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo cautioned that the bill would set “a very dangerous precedent.”

Enabling governments to manipulate companies’ encrypted devices “could involve the introduction of risks or vulnerabilities into products or services,” the coalition said in its comments, which the committee published Thursday.

“We would urge your government to reconsider.”

Tech giant Apple recently filed its own separate submission making the same argument.

The proposed measure has become the latest point of contention in the heated debate over encryption standards and government surveillance authority.

Law enforcement officials say they need greater access to secured digital data to uncover potential terrorist plots, an argument that has gained ground in the wake of the terorrist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif.

But privacy activists and technologists warn that any form of guaranteed access to encrypted data risks exposing broad swaths of sensitive information to hackers, as well as government investigators.

The group of U.S. tech companies expressed similar concerns in their submission.

“The companies believe that encryption is a fundamental security tool, important to the security of the digital economy as well as crucial to ensuring the safety of Web users worldwide,” they said. “We reject any proposals that would require companies to deliberately weaken the security of their products via backdoors, forced decryption, or any other means.”

British officials backing the proposal have said the measure would not restrict the use of encryption, pointing to provisions in the draft. But the tech coalition believe the language is not clear.

If approved by Parliament, the Investigatory Powers Bill would let government investigators access basic Web browsing records — a list of websites, apps and messaging services someone has visited — but not the individual Web pages or messages.

A final proposal is expected in the spring.