British surveillance bill will not ban encryption

British surveillance bill will not ban encryption
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The British government will not ban certain types of encryption in an upcoming security bill, but the move is unlikely to satisfy privacy advocates.

The Guardian reported over the weekend that an investigatory powers bill, set to be unveiled in Parliament on Wednesday, would no longer include any requirements barring businesses from encrypting certain types of digital data.

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It’s an unexpected change of heart for the British government, and comes shortly after the Obama administration decided to back away from its own potential push for legislation that may have required companies to build some type of “backdoor” — essentially an entry point just for government — into their encryption.

Technologists and digital rights groups have cautioned that any form of guaranteed access to encrypted data exposes all protected information to hackers.

“Encryption is important for people to be able to keep themselves safe when they are dealing with these modern communications in the digital age,” said Britain’s Home Secretary Theresa May, who runs the department responsible for domestic security, in a Sunday interview on BBC's "The Andrew Marr Show."

“But what we will be doing is setting out the current position, which does enable the authorities with proper authorization to issue warrants,” she added.

It’s this second statement that has privacy advocates calling the government’s reversal “an invisible climbdown” and “mere spin.”

“All the Home Secretary has announced so far is that they’ve decided to discard powers which were legally unenforceable and drop proposals which even the police were privately telling them were not going to be of much practical use anyway,” said Mairi Clare Rodgers, the campaigns coordinator at Liberty, a human rights advocacy group, in a Monday blog post.

Rodgers maintained that the government is trying to generate positive headlines in order to distract from the fact that the bill lacks a major privacy safeguard — judicial sign-off before any type of digital interception.

“The huge elephant in the room, which the government is pointedly ignoring, is judicial authorization of surveillance requests,” Rodgers said. “This is the most basic safeguard which they could propose. A huge number of democratic countries make use of judges in signing off surveillance — Australia, Canada and the USA among them. Here, senior politicians sign off on the requests.”

The bill released on Wednesday will be a draft, meaning it still has a way to go before becoming law.

British officials insist the measure would only enable necessary digital searches.

A senior British official told The Guardian, “Any access to Internet connection records will be strictly limited and targeted.”

Britain's encryption policies could have ramifications in the U.S. as the two countries' intelligence agencies are closely aligned. 

British Prime Minister David Cameron has also pressed President Obama on encryption, hoping the American leader would take a stronger stance against major tech companies that are moving to encrypt data and lock out law enforcement.