Surveillance laws tweaked to address terror threats
Publish date: 14 June 2017
Issue Number: 1687
Diary: Legalbrief eLaw
Britain and France yesterday (Tuesday) confirmed that they will join forces to press companies to do more to tackle online extremism. At the same time, notes Legalbrief, governments around the world are reviewing their surveillance laws to ensure that they stay ahead of growing terror threats. Prime Minister Theresa May and her French counterpart Emmanuel Macron addressed May’s election campaign pledge to tackle online extremism following two attacks in as many weeks in Manchester and London that killed 30 people. A report on the EWN site notes that Internet firms, such as Google and Twitter, say they are investing heavily and employing thousands of people to take down hate speech and violent content on their platforms, with evidence their efforts are working. But the companies say they also struggle to identify replacement accounts that quickly reappear. After two Islamist attacks in less than two weeks, May’s bid to clamp down on Internet extremism has struck a chord with international leaders, especially Macron whose country has suffered several jihadist attacks since 2015, according to the report.
At the same time, The Register reports that a provision in the UK's controversial surveillance laws creates a potential means for the UK Government to press-gang ‘any’ UK computer expert into working with GCHQ. Computer scientists and researchers are concerned about the provision – even though the consensus is that it is unlikely to be applied in practice because it would damage wider co-operation. Addressing the issue, analyst Simon Clubley said he is concerned about the Bulk Equipment Interference Warrants section of the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 (section 190). ‘If you are a security researcher in the UK and the government finds out you have discovered a vulnerability, then it appears you can be forced against your will to hand over your research to GCHQ. It also appears that if you then still try to warn the vendor after being served a warrant, the government can prosecute you,’ Clubley is quoted in the report as saying.
Meanwhile, the European Court of Justice may be asked to decide on whether mass surveillance by the UK’s intelligence agencies is legal, following a legal challenge mounted by activist group Privacy International. The court ruled in December that the ‘general and indiscriminate retention’ of electronic communications by governments is illegal, in response to a case brought by Labour MP Tom Watson and Conservative MP David Davis, who is now Brexit Secretary. A report on the Silicon site notes that the European judgment, which examined the 2014 Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act, found only the ‘targeted retention of that data solely for the purpose of fighting serious crime’ was permissible. That decision hasn’t been implemented in the UK, which has sought to legitimise the far-reaching surveillance practices of GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 in the Investigatory Powers Act that became law last year, according to the new challenge.
An ocean away, the Trump administration is pushing for the permanent reauthorisation of a law that allows the government to track e-mails and phone calls of non-US citizens outside the country, despite some concerns by Congress about protecting Americans’ privacy and civil liberties. A report in The Independent notes that Dan Coats, Trump’s national intelligence director, testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee that section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act has helped fight terrorism around the world. He described the thwarted New York City subway bombing plot by al-Qaeda's Najibullah Zazi as a testament to the importance of section 702, adding that permanent authorisation of the law without further amendment – proposed in a Bill introduced by Republican Senator Tom Cotton – is a ‘top legislative priority’ for the intelligence community. Deputy Attorney-General Rod Rosenstein, acting FBI director Andrew McCabe, and National Security Agency director Michael Rogers also testified before the committee. They all said that they fully backed permanent reauthorisation of the law, which is set to expire at the end of this year. Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, who has been wary of increasing the government’s surveillance powers, criticised Coats for not providing 'a relative metric for the number of law-abiding Americans' whose information was incidentally collected under section 702.
In China, activists say they fear intensified state surveillance after a draft law seeking to legitimise monitoring of suspects and raids on premises was announced last week, the latest step to strengthen Beijing's security apparatus. A report on the Jakarta Globe site notes that six activists say they already face extensive surveillance by security agents and cameras outside their homes. And messages they post on social media, including instant messaging applications like WeChat, are monitored and censored. The draft of a new law to formally underpin and possibly expand China's intelligence gathering operations at home and abroad was released on 16 May. However, the law was vaguely worded and contained no details on the specific powers being granted to various state agencies. ‘State intelligence work should...provide support to guard against and dispel state security threats (and) protect major national interests,’ the document said.