Talks underway to give Brits new access to US tech firms

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The United States and Britain have begun negotiations on a scheme to force Silicon Valley tech firms to cooperate with British authorities in the course of their criminal investigations.

Obama administration officials confirmed to The Hill that talks have begun on a possible agreement allowing Britain to go over American officials’ heads and serve wiretap orders directly on U.S. companies for cases involving British citizens.

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The agreement would speed up the time that it takes British officials to conduct counterterror and criminal investigations involving messages sent via U.S. tech platforms. 

It “would make cross-border requests for certain electronic communications data for law enforcement and national security purposes more effective and efficient, while still protecting privacy and civil liberties,” a senior administration official told The Hill in an emailed statement.  

Details of the talks, which are still in their early stages, were first reported by The Washington Post on Friday. 

The negotiations are aimed at confronting challenges that foreign governments face posed by the ubiquity of American Internet and communications firms.

For instance, if British officials are looking to obtain emails and other communications between two British citizens sent via an American company such as Facebook or Microsoft, they currently have to go through a lengthy legal treaty designed to share evidence between countries. Even though both suspects in the case may be British, the American company keeps the data on a server in the U.S. 

Going through the treaty process can take months, which officials warn cripples their ability to respond quickly to dangerous threats.  

The potential new process would not allow the British government to obtain records about American citizens or residents, according to the Post, which obtained a draft negotiating document.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement that the accord “has the potential to improve our mutual security, counter so-called data localization incentives, and make it easier and more cost effective for our companies to operate in Britain.”

However, any new agreement on handling evidence could upset privacy advocates. The British government uses a different standard for authorizing a wiretap or gaining stored data. Applying those rules in the U.S. could threaten due process rights, critics told the Post.  

“We will need to keep a close eye on the privacy and civil liberty protections of any agreement,” Schiff said, “including making sure these British orders do not cover U.S. persons or individuals within the U.S., do not permit bulk collection, and have due process protections that meet high standards.”

Adoption of the agreement would likely require action by Congress.

The U.S. Justice Department is currently ensnared in a court case along similar lines.

The government is trying to force Microsoft to hand over information about a user’s email account that is stored on a data server in Ireland. Microsoft has resisted, claiming that the government cannot get the data through a warrant and instead needs to go through the legal treaty process for evidence sharing.

- Updated at 2:26 p.m.