The Investigatory Powers Act: still a question of trust…

I read the short review of the Investigatory Powers Act by David Anderson QC, Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, with a great deal of interest. Anderson has been exemplary in his role, and has played a very significant part in ensuring that the Investigatory Powers Act has the safeguards that it does, and the chance to be something other than the ‘Snooper’s Charter’ which it often described as.

I find myself agreeing with a great deal of what he says – though coming to rather different conclusions. As one of those who followed the process of the act from beginning to end – and who participated in a number of the reviews, including appearing before the Joint Bill Committee, and being one of those consulted by David in his Bulk Powers Review, I agree with him entirely that the bill has been one of the most carefully scrutinised in recent times. That, however, also reveals the weaknesses of our scrutiny system. Some of these weaknesses that are unavoidable – it would be impossible to expect parliamentarians to understand many of the issues, or even to read all the fairly massive reports that the various reviews resulted in. Others are not: parliamentarians should be able to see their own weaknesses, and be willing to listen a bit more carefully to those who do understand them. As a legal academic, for example, I try to recognise my own weaknesses in understanding the technology, and defer to those who do understand it.

Where I find myself disagreeing most with the Independent Reviewer is in the weight that he appears to give to the bad features and weaknesses of the Investigatory Powers Act. Many of the problems seem to hit at the heart of the Act, and undermine its claim to be something positive overall.

  1. Internet Connection Records, which he notes that he had no opportunity to evaluate, were the one area noted as being entirely new in the bill – and in the view of many (including myself) are both unproven and represent a huge risk, a huge waste of resources. They should, in my view, have been included in David Anderson’s Bulk Powers Review – though not, in the technical terms of the bill, ‘Bulk Powers’, they are in a real sense every bit as ‘bulky’ and ‘powerful’. There are likely (in my view) to be highly difficult to implement, highly unlikely to be effective – and they could have been excluded from the Act, or introduced and tested on a pilot basis, with scope for a proper review.
  2. I share David Anderson’s concern over the dual lock system – and agree with him that this could and should have been done better. As another key element of the bill – and considered to be one of the key safeguards – this really matters. If the dual lock ends up being little more than a rubber stamp, its existence may do more harm than good, providing false assurance and complacency. The test of this will be in the implementation – something that needs to be watched very carefully.
  3. I also share David Anderson’s note that it is “legitimate to ask whether there are adequate advance safeguards on the exercise of some of the very extensive powers now spelled out for the first time”. This, it seems to me, is very important indeed – and hits at the heart of the problems that many of us have with the bill. The powers are extensive, and it is not at all clear that the safeguards are adequate.
  4. Finally as David Anderson notes, the failure to recognise in statute the idea of an ‘Investigatory Powers Commission’ could be significant. The question is why it was omitted: was it, as those suspicious of the authorities might suggest, because they don’t want to put proper, independent oversight on a statutory basis for fear of its restricting their actions?

That, I think, reflects my overall difference with David Anderson – the same question that he highlighted in his review of investigatory powers in 2015. A question of trust. The biggest weakness of the Investigatory Powers Act, for me, is that it still relies on a great deal of trust, without the authorities having yet, for me, proved themselves worthy of that trust. We have to trust that the dual lock system will work. We have to trust that an investigatory powers commission will be put in place and have appropriate powers – they’re not set down in statute. We have to trust that the Technology Advisory Panel will be filled with the right kind of people, and will be able to perform its functions. We have to trust that everything is ‘OK’ with Internet Connection Records.

We have to trust (as David Anderson also notes) that the government interprets the various grey areas and ambiguities in the Act appropriately – when we really didn’t need to nearly as much as we do. Things like how to deal with encryption (whether the Act allows the government to mandate ‘back doors’ etc) and extraterritoriality (how the Act will be enforced on service providers outside the UK) remain subject to a great deal of doubt – and are potentially deeply dangerous.

Whether it is possible for me to agree with David Anderson that this is a ‘victory for democracy and the rule of law’ remains to be seen. Right now, I can’t give it a round of applause. I don’t condemn it completely – but there are sufficient problems at the heart of many of the most important parts of the Act to make it impossible to applaud. A chance missed, is the best I can say at this stage.

The real test is in the implementation. On that, I wholeheartedly agree with David Anderson that the new Investigatory Powers Commission (or whatever name is given to it) is the key. It will make or break the trust that people can have in the Act, and indeed in those engaged in surveillance. As he puts it:

“the new supervisory body needs to develop a culture of high-level technical understanding, intellectual enquiry, openness and challenge.”

If it does that, I will be delighted – and, with my cynical hat on, very surprised. I hope that I am.

Warning signs – and surveillance…

There are many things being said at the Conservative Party Conference that should be worrying people – from the idea that we should be sending foreign doctors home and ‘naming and shaming’ companies that have the temerity and lack of patriotism to dare to employ foreigners onwards. Military in schools just sends one extra shiver down the spine – these things, when looked at together, do not paint a pretty picture at all. The direction our government is headed is one that is ringing alarm bells for many. Even if you don’t believe the current government is ‘extreme’, the idea that it could become extreme should be taken very seriously indeed.

That, in turn, should raise even louder alarm bells at the current plans for surveillance. The powers that are being granted to the authorities under the Investigatory Powers Bill that is currently making its final steps through parliament are extremely potent and worrying even in the hands of a trustworthy, ‘moderate’ government – but in the hands of an extreme government they become something far, far worse. Tools such as Internet Connection Records, though very poorly suited to the purpose for which they are being put forward, are very good at the kind of profile-based politically-motivated population control that totalitarian regimes thrive upon. The same for many of the ‘bulk powers’ built into the Investigatory Powers Bill. It is bad enough – dangerous enough – to give these kinds of powers to a government that can be trusted, but by putting them into law and building the ‘necessary’ systems to implement them, we are giving them to subsequent governments, governments that may be far less trustworthy, and far more worrying. Governments like those that we have seen more than glimpses of at the Conservative Party conference over the last few days.

When the recent revelation that Yahoo! secretly scanned all of its customers incoming emails on behalf of the US intelligence agencies is added to the equation – with the added twist that Yahoo! had been subject to a massive hack – the picture gets still worse. As I point out in my new academic piece on surveillance, it is a mistake to think of commercial and governmental surveillance as separate and entirely different: they are intimately connected and inextricably linked. If we accept, unthinking, corporate surveillance as harmless, innovative and just about a bit more annoying advertising, we miss the bigger picture. By accepting that, we accept government use of the same techniques, government ‘forcing’ corporations to work with and for them and so on – and not just our current, relatively benign (!) governments but future, more extreme, more alarming, more dangerous governments. If Amber Rudd wants to know whether a company is employing too many foreigners, why not scan all that company’s emails, monitor all the web-browsing from that company’s computers and use profiling to work out which of the employees are probably ‘foreign’, then target them accordingly. Naming and shaming. Labelling. Deporting.

As Bruce Schneier put it:

“It’s bad civic hygiene to build an infrastructure that can be used to facilitate a police state.”

The combination of the level of corporate surveillance, the interaction between corporates and governments, and the disturbing political developments all over the world – from the Conservative Party conference to Donald Trump (and Hillary Clinton is no saint in surveillance terms!) to extremism in Hungary and Poland and more – is making his warning too important to ignore.

It is not too late to change direction – at least we had better hope it is – and we should do everything we can to do so. In the UK, all the opposition parties should fight much harder to limit and amend the Investigatory Powers Bill, for example – as should those within the Conservative Party who have any sense of the traditions of liberty that they purport to hold as important. Whether they will is another matter. This Conservative Party conference should be a warning sign for all.

A better debate on surveillance?

screen-shot-2016-09-21-at-18-57-00Back in 2015, Andrew Parker, the head of MI5, called for a ‘mature debate’ on surveillance – in advance of the Investigatory Powers Bill, the surveillance law which has now almost finished making its way through parliament, and will almost certainly become law in a few months time. Though there has been, at least in some ways, a better debate over this bill than over previous attempts to update the UK’s surveillance law, it still seems as though the debate in both politics and the media remains distinctly superficial and indeed often deeply misleading.

It is in this context that I have a new academic paper out: “Data gathering, surveillance and human rights: recasting the debate”, in a new journal, the Journal of Cyber Policy. It is an academic piece, and access, sadly, is relatively restricted, so I wanted to say a little about the piece here, in a blog which is freely accessible to all – at least in places where censorship of the internet has not yet taken full hold.

The essence of the argument in the paper is relatively straightforward. The debate over surveillance is simplified and miscast in a number of ways, and those ways in general tend to make surveillance seem more positive and effective that it is, and with less broad and significant an impact on ordinary people than it might have. The rights that it impinges are underplayed, and the side-effects of the surveillance are barely mentioned, making surveillance seem much more attractive than should be – and hence decisions are made that might not have been made if the debate had been better informed. If the debate is improved, then the decisions will be improved – and we might have both better law and better surveillance practices.

Perhaps the most important way in which the debate needs to be improved is to understand that surveillance does not just impact upon what is portrayed as a kind of selfish, individual privacy – privacy that it is implied does not matter for those who ‘have nothing to hide’ – but upon a wide range of what are generally described as ‘civil liberties’. It has a big impact on freedom of speech – an impact that been empirically evidenced in the last year – and upon freedom of association and assembly, both online and in the ‘real’ world. One of the main reasons for this – a reason largely missed by those who advocate for more surveillance – is that we use the internet for so many more things than we ever used telephones and letters, or even email. We work, play, romance and research our health. We organise our social lives, find entertainment, shop, discuss politics, do our finances and much, much more. There is pretty much no element of our lives that does not have a very significant online element – and that means that surveillance touches all aspects of our lives, and any chilling effect doesn’t just chill speech or invade selfish privacy, but almost everything.

This, and much more, is discussed in my paper – which I hope will contribute to the debate, and indeed stimulate debate. Some of it is contentious – the role of commercial surveillance the interaction between it and state surveillance – but that too is intentional. Contentious issues need to be discussed.

There is one particular point that often gets missed – the question of when surveillance occurs. Is it when data is gathered, when it is algorithmically analysed, or when human eyes finally look at it. In the end, this may be a semantic point – what technically counts as ‘surveillance’ is less important than what actually has an impact on people, which begins at the data gathering stage. In my conclusion, I bring out that point by quoting our new Prime Minister, from her time as Home Secretary and chief instigator of our current manifestation of surveillance law. This is how I put it in the paper:

“Statements such as Theresa May’s that ‘the UK does not engage in mass surveillance’ though semantically arguable, are in effect deeply unhelpful. A more accurate statement would be that:

‘the UK engages in bulk data gathering that interferes not only with privacy but with freedom of expression, association and assembly, the right to a free trial and the prohibition of discrimination, and which puts people at a wide variety of unacknowledged and unquantified risks.’”

It is only when we can have clearer debate, acknowledging the real risks, that we can come to appropriate conclusions. We are probably too late for that to happen in relation to the Investigatory Powers Bill, but given that the bill includes measures such as the contentious Internet Connection Records that seem likely to fail, in expensive and probably farcical ways, the debate will be returned to again and again. Next time, perhaps it might be a better debate.

Investigatory Powers Bill – my written submission

As well as providing oral evidence to the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill Joint Committee (which I have written about here, can be watched here, and a transcript can be found here) I submitted written evidence on the 15th December 2015.

Screen Shot 2015-12-09 at 10.02.12

The contents of the written submission are set out below. It is a lot more detailed than the oral evidence, and a long read (around 7,000 words) but even so, given the timescale involved, it is not as comprehensive as I would have liked – and I didn’t have as much time to proof read it as I would have liked. There are a number of areas I would have liked to have covered that I did not, but I hope it helps.

As it is published, the written evidence is becoming available on the IP Bill Committee website here – my own evidence is part of what has been published so far.


Submission to the Joint Committee on the draft Investigatory Powers Bill by Dr Paul Bernal

I am making this submission in my capacity as Lecturer in Information Technology, Intellectual Property and Media Law at the UEA Law School. I research in internet law and specialise in internet privacy from both a theoretical and a practical perspective. My PhD thesis, completed at the LSE, looked into the impact that deficiencies in data privacy can have on our individual autonomy, and set out a possible rights-based approach to internet privacy. My book, Internet Privacy Rights – Rights to Protect Autonomy, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2014. I am a member of the National Police Chiefs’ Council’s Independent Digital Ethics Panel. The draft Investigatory Powers Bill therefore lies precisely within my academic field.

I gave oral evidence to the Committee on 7th December 2015: this written evidence is intended to expand on and explain some of the evidence that I gave on that date. If any further explanation is required, I would be happy to provide it.


One page summary of the submission

The submission looks specifically at the nature of internet surveillance, as set out in the Bill, at its impact on broad areas of our lives – not just what is conventionally called ‘communications’ – and on a broad range of human rights – not just privacy but freedom of expression, of association and assembly, and of protection from discrimination. It looks very specifically at the idea of ‘Internet Connection Records, briefly at data definitions and at encryption, as well as looking at how the Bill might be ‘future proofed’ more effectively.

The submission will suggest that in its current form, in terms of the overarching/thematic questions set out in the Committee’s Call for Written Evidence, it is hard to conclude that all of the powers sought are necessary, uncertain that they are legal, likely that many of them are neither workable nor carefully defined, and unclear whether they are sufficiently supervised. In some particular areas – Internet Connection Records is the example that I focus on in this submission – the supervision envisaged does not seem sufficient or appropriate. Moreover, there are critical issues – for example the vulnerability of gathered data – that are not addressed at all. These problems potentially leave the Bill open to successful legal challenge and rather than ‘future-proofing’ the Bill, they provide what might be described as hostages to fortune.

Many of the problems, in my opinion, could be avoided by taking a number of key steps. Firstly, rethinking (and possibly abandoning) the Internet Connection Records plans. Secondly, being more precise and open about the Bulk Powers, including a proper setting out of examples so that the Committee can make an appropriate judgment as to their proportionality and to reduce the likelihood of their being subject to legal challenge. Thirdly, taking a new look at encryption and being clear about the approach to end-to-end encryption. Fourthly, strengthening and broadening the scope of oversight. Fifthly, through the use of some form of renewal or sunset clauses to ensure that the powers are subject to full review and reflection on a regular basis.

1          Introductory remarks

1.1       Before dealing with the substance of the Bill, there is an overriding question that needs to be answered: why is the Committee being asked to follow such a tight timetable? This is a critically important piece of legislation – laws concerning surveillance and interception are not put forward often, particularly as they are long and complex and deal with highly technical issues. That makes detailed and careful scrutiny absolutely crucial. Andrew Parker of MI5 called for ‘mature debate’ on surveillance immediately prior to the introduction of the Bill: the timescale set out for the scrutiny of the Bill does not appear to give an adequate opportunity for that mature debate.

1.2       Moreover, it is equally important that the debate be an accurate one, and engaged upon with understanding and clarity. In the few weeks since the Bill was introduced the public debate has been far from this. As shall be discussed below, for example, the analogies chosen for some of the powers envisaged in the Bill have been very misleading. In particular, to suggest that the proposed ‘Internet Connection Records’ (‘ICRs’) are like an ‘itemised phone bill’, as the Home Secretary described it, is wholly inappropriate. As I set out below (in section 5) the reality is very different. There are two possible interpretations for the use of such inappropriate analogies: either the people using them don’t understand the implications of the powers, which means more discussion is needed to disabuse them of their illusions, or they are intentionally oversimplifying and misleading, which raises even more concerns.

1.3       For this reason, the first and most important point that I believe the Committee should be making in relation to the scrutiny of the Bill is that more time is needed. As I set out below (in 8.4 below) the case for the urgency of the Bill, particularly in the light of the recent attacks in Paris, has not been made: in many ways the attacks in Paris should make Parliament pause and reflect more carefully about the best approach to investigatory powers in relation to terrorism.

1.4       In its current form, in terms of the overarching/thematic questions set out in the Committee’s Call for Written Evidence, it is hard to conclude that all of the powers sought are necessary, uncertain that they are legal, likely that many of them are neither workable nor carefully defined, and unclear whether they are sufficiently supervised. In some particular areas – Internet Connection Records is the example that I focus on in this submission – the supervision envisaged does not seem sufficient or appropriate. Moreover, there are critical issues – for example the vulnerability of gathered data – that are not addressed at all. These problems potentially leave the Bill open to successful legal challenge and rather than ‘future-proofing’ the Bill, they provide what might be described as hostages to fortune.

1.5       Many of the problems, in my opinion, could be avoided by taking a number of key steps. Firstly, rethinking (and possibly abandoning) the Internet Connection Records plans. Secondly, being more precise and open about the Bulk Powers, including a proper setting out of examples so that the Committee can make an appropriate judgment as to their proportionality and to reduce the likelihood of their being subject to legal challenge. Thirdly, taking a new look at encryption and being clear about the approach to end-to-end encryption. Fourthly, strengthening and broadening the scope of oversight. Fifthly, through the use of some form of renewal or sunset clauses to ensure that the powers are subject to full review and reflection on a regular basis.

2          The scope and nature of this submission

2.1       This submission deals specifically with the gathering, use and retention of communications data, and of Internet Connection Records in particular. It deals more closely with the internet rather than other forms of communication – this is my particular area of expertise, and it is becoming more and more important as a form of communications. The submission does not address areas such as Equipment Interference, and deals only briefly with other issues such as interception and oversight. Many of the issues identified with the gathering, use and retention of communications data, however, have a broader application to the approach adopted by the Bill.

2.2       It should be noted, in particular, that this submission does not suggest that it is unnecessary for either the security and intelligence services or law enforcement to have investigatory powers such as those contained in the draft Bill. Many of the powers in the draft Bill are clearly critical for both security and intelligence services and law enforcement to do their jobs. Rather, this submission suggests that as it is currently drafted the bill includes some powers that are poorly defined, poorly suited to the stated function, have more serious repercussions than seem to have been understood, and could represent a distraction, a waste of resources and add an unnecessary set of additional risks to an already risky environment for the very people that the security and intelligence services and law enforcement are charged with protecting.

3          The Internet, Internet Surveillance and Communications Data

3.1       The internet has changed the way that people communicate in many radical ways. More than that, however, it has changed the way people live their lives. This is perhaps the single most important thing to understand about the internet: we do not just use it for what we have traditionally thought of as ‘communications’, but in almost every aspect of our lives. We don’t just talk to our friends online, or just do our professional work online, we do almost everything online. We bank online. We shop online. We research online. We find relationships online. We listen to music and watch TV and movies online. We plan our holidays online. We try to find out about our health problems online. We look at our finance online. For most people in our modern society, it is hard to find a single aspect of our lives that does not have a significant online element.

3.2       This means that internet interception and surveillance has a far bigger potential impact than traditional communications interception and surveillance might have had. Intercepting internet communications is not the equivalent of tapping a telephone line or examining the outside of letters sent and received, primarily because we use the internet for far more than we ever used telephones or letters. This point cannot be overemphasised: the uses of the internet are growing all the time and show no signs of slowing down. Indeed, more dimensions of internet use are emerging all the time: the so-called ‘internet of things’ which integrates ‘real world’ items (from cars and fridges to Barbie dolls[1]) into the internet is just one example.

3.3       This is also one of the reasons that likening Internet Connection Records to an itemised phone bill is particularly misleading. Another equally important reason to challenge that metaphor is the nature and potential uses of the data itself. What is labelled Communications Data (and in particular ‘relevant communications data’, as set out in clause 71(9) of the draft Bill) is by nature of its digital form ideal for analysis and profiling. Indeed, using this kind of data for profiling is the heart of the business models of Google, Facebook and the entire internet advertising industry.

3.4       The inferences that can be – and are – drawn from this kind of data, through automated, algorithmic analysis rather than through informed, human scrutiny – are enormous and are central to the kind of ‘behavioural targeting’ that are the current mode of choice for internet advertisers. Academic studies have shown that very detailed inferences can be drawn: analysis of Facebook ‘Likes’, for example, has been used to indicate the most personal of data including sexuality, intelligence and so forth. A recent study at Cambridge University concluded that ‘by mining Facebook Likes, the computer model was able to predict a person’s personality more accurately than most of their friends and family.’[2]

3.5       This means that the kind of ‘communications’ data discussed in the Bill is vastly more significant that what is traditionally considered to be communications. It also means that from a human rights perspective more rights are engaged by its gathering, holding and use. Internet ‘communications’ data does not just engage Article 8 in its ‘correspondence’ aspect, but in its ‘private and family life’ aspect. It engages Article 10 – the impact of internet surveillance on freedom of speech has become a bigger and bigger issue in recent years, as noted in depth by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, most recently in his report on encryption and anonymity.[3]

3.6       Article 11, which governs Freedom of Association and Assembly, is also critically engaged: not only do people now associate and assemble online, but they use online tools to organise and coordinate ‘real world’ association and assembly. Indeed, using surveillance to perform what might loosely be called chilling for association and assembly has become one of the key tools of the more authoritarian governments to stifle dissent. Monitoring and even shutting off access to social media systems, for example, was used by many of the repressive regimes in the Arab Spring. Even in the UK, the government communications plan for 2013/14 included the monitoring of social media in order to ‘head off badger cull protests’, as the BBC reported.[4] This kind of monitoring does not necessarily engage Article 8, as Tweets (the most obvious example to monitor) are public, but it would engage both aspects of Article 11, and indeed of Article 10.

3.7       Article 14, the prohibition of discrimination, is also engaged: the kind of profiling discussed in paragraph 3.4 above can be used to attempt to determine a person’s race, gender, possible disability, religion, political views, even direct information like membership of a trade union. It should be noted, as is the case for all these profiling systems, that accuracy is far from guaranteed, giving rise to a bigger range of risks. Where derived or profiling data is accurate, it can involve invasions of privacy, chilling of speech and discrimination: where it is inaccurate it can generate injustice, inappropriate decisions and further chills and discrimination.

3.8       This broad range of human rights engaged means that the ‘proportionality bar’ for any gathering of this data, interception and so forth is higher than it would be if only the correspondence aspect of Article 8 were engaged. It is important to understand that the underlying reason for this is that privacy is not an individual, ‘selfish’, right, but one that underpins the way that our communities function. We need privacy to communicate, to express ourselves, to associate with those we choose, to assemble when and where we wish – indeed to do all those things that humans, as social creatures, need to do. Privacy is a collective right that needs to be considered in those terms.

3.9       It is also critical to note that communications data is not ‘less’ intrusive than content: it is ‘differently’ intrusive. In some ways, as has been historically evident, it is less intrusive – which is why historically it has been granted lower levels of protection – but increasingly the intrusion possible through the gathering of communications data is in other was greater than that possible through examination of content. There are a number of connected reasons for this. Firstly, it is more suitable for aggregation and analysis – communications data is in a structured form, and the volumes gathered make it possible to use ‘big data’ analysis, as noted above. Secondly, content can be disguised more easily – either by technical encryption or by using ‘coded’ language. Thirdly, there are many kinds of subjects that are often avoided deliberately when writing content – things like sexuality, health and religion – that can be determined by analysis of communications data. That means that the intrusive nature of communications data can often be greater than that of content. Moreover, as the levels and nature of data gathered grows, the possible intrusions are themselves growing. This means that the idea that communications data needs a lower level of control, and less scrutiny, than content data is not really appropriate – and in the future will become even less appropriate.

4          When rights are engaged

4.1       A key issue in relation to the gathering and retention of communications data is when the relevant rights are engaged: it is when data is gathered and retained, when it is subject to algorithmic analysis or automated filtering, or when it is subject to human examination. When looked at from what might be viewed an ‘old fashioned’ communications perspective, it is only when humans examine the data that ‘surveillance’ occurs and privacy is engaged. In relation to internet communications data this is to fundamentally miss the nature of the data and the nature of the risks. In practice, many of the most important risks occur at the gathering stage, and more at what might loosely be described as the ‘automated analysis’ stage.

4.2       It is fundamental to the nature of data that when it is gathered it becomes vulnerable. This vulnerability has a number of angles. There is vulnerability to loss – from human error to human malice, from insiders and whistle-blowers to hackers of various forms. The recent hacks of Talk Talk and Ashley Madison in particular should have focussed the minds of any envisaging asking communications providers to hold more and more sensitive data. There is vulnerability to what is variously called ‘function creep’ or ‘mission creep’: data gathered for one reason may end up being used for another reason. Indeed, when business models of companies such as Facebook and Google are concerned this is one of the key features: they gather data with the knowledge that this data is useful and that the uses will develop and grow with time.

4.3       It is also at the gathering stage that the chilling effects come in. The Panopticon, devised by Bentham and further theorised about by Foucault, was intended to work by encouraging ‘good’ behaviour in prisoners through the possibility of their being observed, not by the actual observation. Similarly it is the knowledge that data is being gathered that chills freedom of expression, freedom of association and assembly and so forth, not the specific human examination of that data. This is not only a theoretical analysis but one borne out in practice, which is one of the reasons that the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and many others have made the link between privacy and freedom of expression.[5]

4.4       Further vulnerabilities arise at the automated analysis stage: decisions are made by the algorithms, particular in regard to filtering based on automated profiling. In the business context, services are tailored to individuals automatically based on this kind of filtering – Google, for example, has been providing automatically and personally tailored search results to all individuals since 2009, without the involvement of humans at any stage. Whether security and intelligence services or law enforcement use this kind of a method is not clear, but it would be rational for them to do so: this does mean, however, that more risks are involved and that more controls and oversight are needed at this level as well as at the point that human examination takes place.

4.5       Different kinds of risks arise at each stage. It is not necessarily true that the risks are greater at the final, human examination stage. They are qualitatively different, and engage different rights and involve different issues. If anything, however, it is likely that as technology advances the risks at the earlier stages – the gathering and then the automated analysis stages – will become more important than the human examination stage. It is critical, therefore, that the Bill ensures that appropriate oversight and controls are put in place at these earlier stages. At present, this does not appear to be the case. Indeed, the essence of the data retention provisions appears to be that no real risk is considered by the ‘mere’ retention of data. That is to fundamentally misunderstand the impact of the gathering of internet communications data.

5          Internet Connection Records

5.1       Internet Connection Records (‘ICRs’) have been described as the only really new power in the Bill, and yet they are deeply problematic in a number of ways. The first is the question of definition. The ‘Context’ section of the Guide to Powers and Safeguards (the Guide) in the introduction to the Bill says that:

“The draft Bill will make provision for the retention of internet connection records (ICRs) in order for law enforcement to identify the communications service to which a device has connected. This will restore capabilities that have been lost as a result of changes in the way people communicate.” (paragraph 3)

This is further explained in paragraphs 44 and 45 of the Guide as follows:

“44. A kind of communications data, an ICR is a record of the internet services a specific device has connected to, such as a website or instant messaging application. It is captured by the company providing access to the internet. Where available, this data may be acquired from CSPs by law enforcement and the security and intelligence agencies.

45. An ICR is not a person’s full internet browsing history. It is a record of the services that they have connected to, which can provide vital investigative leads. It would not reveal every web page that they visit or anything that they do on that web page.”

Various briefings to the press have suggested that in the context of web browsing this would mean that the URL up to the first slash would be gathered (e.g. and not any further e.g. ). On this basis it seems reasonable to assume that in relation to app-based access to the internet via smartphones or tablets the ICR would include the activation of the app, but nothing further.

5.2       The ‘definition’ of ICRs in the bill is set out in 47(6) as follows:

“In this section “internet connection record” means data which—

(a) may be used to identify a telecommunications service to which a communication is transmitted through a telecommunication system for

the purpose of obtaining access to, or running, a computer file or computer program, and

(b) is generated or processed by a telecommunications operator in the process of supplying the telecommunications service to the sender of the communication (whether or not a person).”

This definition is vague, and press briefings have suggested that the details would be in some ways negotiated directly with the communications services. This does not seem satisfactory at all, particularly for something considered to be such a major part of the Bill: indeed, the only really new power according to the Guide. More precision should be provided within the Bill itself – and specific examples spelled out in Codes of Practice that accompany the Bill, covering the major categories of communications envisaged. Initial versions of these Codes of Practice should be available to Parliament at the same time as the Bill makes its passage through the Houses.

5.3       The Bill describes the functions to which ICRs may be put. In 47(4) it is set out that ICRs (and data obtained through the processing of ICRs) can only be used to identify:

“(a) which person or apparatus is using an internet service where—

(i) the service and time of use are already known, but

(ii) the identity of the person or apparatus using the service is not known,

(b) which internet communications service is being used, and when and how it is being used, by a person or apparatus whose identity is already known, or

(c) where or when a person or apparatus whose identity is already known is obtaining access to, or running, a computer file or computer program which wholly or mainly involves making available, or acquiring, material whose possession is a crime.”

The problem is that in all three cases ICRs insofar as they are currently defined are very poorly suited to performing any of these three functions – and better methods either already exist for them or could be devised to do so. ICRs provide at the same time much more information (and more intrusion) than is necessary and less information than is adequate to perform the function. In part this is because of the way that the internet is used and in part because of the way that ICRs are set out. Examples in the following paragraphs can illustrate some (but not all) of the problems.

5.4       The intrusion issue arises from the nature of internet use, as described in Section 3 of this submission. ICRs cannot be accurately likened to ‘itemised telephone bills’. They do not record the details of who a person is communicating with (as an itemised telephone bill would) but they do include vastly more information, and more sensitive and personal information, than an itemised telephone bill could possibly contain. A record of websites visited, even at the basic level, can reveal some of the most intimate information about an individual – and not in terms of what might traditionally be called ‘communications’. This intrusion could be direct – such as accessing a website such as at 3am or accessing information services about HIV – or could come from profiling possibilities. The commercial profilers, using what is often described as ‘big data’ analysis (and has been explained briefly in section 3 above) are able to draw inferences from very few pieces of information. Tastes, politics, sexuality, and so forth can be inferred from this data, with a relatively good chance of success.

5.5       This makes ICRs ideal for profiling and potentially subject to function-creep/mission-creep. It also makes them ideally suited for crimes such as identity theft and personalised scamming, and the databases of ICRs created by communications service providers a perfect target for hackers and malicious insiders. By gathering ICRs, a new range of vulnerabilities are created. Data, however held and whoever it is held by, is vulnerable in a wide range of ways.[6] Recent events have highlighted this very directly: the hacking of Talk Talk, precisely the sort of provider who would be expected to gather and store ICRs, should be taken very seriously. Currently it appears as though this hack was not done by the kind of ‘cyber-terrorists’ that were originally suggested, but by disparate teenagers around the UK. Databases of ICRs would seem highly likely to attract the interest both hackers of many different kinds. In practice, too, precisely those organisations who should have the greatest expertise and the greatest motivations to keep data secure – from the MOD and HMRC and the US DoD to Swiss Banks, technology companies including Sony and Apple – have all proved vulnerable to hacking or other forms of data loss in recent years. Hacking is the most dramatic, but human error, human malice, collusion and corruption, and commercial pressures (both to reduce costs and to ‘monetise’ data) may be more significant – and the ways that all these vulnerabilities can combine makes the risk even more significant.

5.6       ICRs are also unlikely to provide the information that law enforcement and the intelligence and security services need in order to perform the three functions noted above. The first example of this is Facebook. Facebook messages and more open communications would seem on the surface to be exactly the kind of information that law enforcement might need to locate missing children – the kind of example referred to in the introduction and guide to the bill. ICRs, however, would give almost no relevant information in respect of Facebook. In practice, Facebook is used in many different ways by many different people – but the general approach is to remain connected to Facebook all the time. Often this will literally be 24 hours a day, as devices are rarely turned off at night – the ‘connection’ event has little relationship to the use of the service. If Facebook is accessed by smartphone or tablet, it will generally be via an app that runs in the background at all times – this is crucial for the user to be able to receive notifications of events, of messages, of all kinds of things. If Facebook is accessed by PC, it may be by an app (with the same issues) or through the web – but if via the web this will often be using ‘tabbed browsing’ with one tab on the browser keeping the connection to Facebook available without the need to reconnect.

5.7       Facebook and others encourage and support this kind of long-term and even permanent connection to their services – it supports their business model and in a legal sense gives them some kind of consent to the kind of tracking and information gathering about their users that is the key to their success. ICRs would not help in relation to Facebook except in very, very rare circumstances. Further, most information remains available on Facebook in other ways. Much of it is public and searchable anyway. Facebook does not delete information except in extraordinary circumstances – the requirement for communications providers to maintain ICRs would add nothing to what Facebook retains.

5.8       The story is similar in relation to Twitter and similar services. A 24/7 connection is possible and indeed encouraged. Tweets are ‘public’ and available at all times, as well as being searchable and subject to possible data mining. Again, ICRs would add nothing to the ways that law enforcement and the intelligence and security services could use Twitter data. Almost all the current and developing communications services – from WhatsApp and SnapChat to Pinterest and more – have similar approaches and ICRs would be similarly unhelpful.

5.9       Further, the information gathered through ICRs would fail to capture a significant amount of the ‘communications’ that can and do happen on the internet – because the interactive nature of the internet now means that almost any form of website can be used for communication without that communication being the primary purpose of the website. Detailed conversations, for example, can and do happen on the comments sections of newspaper websites: if an analysis of ICRs showed access to would the immediate thought be that communications are going on? Similarly, coded (rather than encrypted) messages can be put on product reviews on I have had detailed political conversations on the message-boards of the ‘Internet Movies Database’ ( but an ICR would neither reveal nor suggest the possibility of this.

5.10     This means that neither can the innocent missing child be found by ICRs via Facebook or its equivalents nor can the even slightly careful criminal or terrorist be located or tracked. Not enough information is revealed to find either – whilst extra information is gathered that adds to intrusion and vulnerability. The third function stated for ICRs refers to people whose identity is already known. For these people, ICRs provide insufficient information to help. This is one of the examples where more targeted powers would help – and are already envisaged elsewhere in the Bill.

5.11     The conclusion for all of this is that ICRs are not likely to be a useful tool in terms of the functions presented. The closest equivalent form of surveillance used around the world has been in Denmark, with very poor results. In their evaluation of five years’ experience the Danish Justice Ministry concluded that ‘session logging’, their equivalent of Internet Connection Records, had been of almost no use to the police. [7] It should be noted that when the Danish ‘session logging’ suggestion was first made, the Danish ISPs repeatedly warned that the system would not work and that the data would be of little use. Their warnings were not heeded. Similar warnings from ISPs in the UK have already begun to emerge. The argument has been made that the Danish failure was a result of the specific technical implementation – I would urge the Committee to examine it in depth to come to a conclusion. However, the fundamental issues as noted above are only likely to grow as the technology becomes more complex, the data more dense and interlinked, and the use of it more nuanced. All these trends are likely only to increase in speed.

5.12     The gathering and holding of ICRs are also likely to add vulnerabilities to all those about whom they are collected, as well as requiring massive amounts of data storage at a considerable cost. At a time when resources are naturally very tight, for the money, expertise and focus to be on something like this appears inappropriate.


6          Other brief observations about communications data, definitions and encryption

6.1       There is still confusion between ‘content’ and ‘communications’ data. The references to ‘meaning’ in 82(4), 82(8),106(8) and 136(4) and emphasised in 193(6) seem to add rather than reduce confusion – particularly when considered in relation to the kinds of profiling possible from the analysis of basic communications data. It is possible to derive ‘meaning’ from almost any data – this is one of the fundamental problems with the idea that content and communications can be simply and meaningfully separated. In practice, this is far from the case.[8] Further, Internet Connection Records are just one of many examples of ‘communications’ data that can be used to derive deeply personal information – and sometimes more directly (through analysis) than often confusing and coded (rather than encrypted) content.

6.2       There are other issues with the definitions of data – experts have been attempting to analyse them in detail in the short time since the Bill was published, and the fact that these experts have been unable to agree or at times even ascertain the meaning of some of the definitions is something that should be taken seriously. Again it emphasises the importance of having sufficient time to scrutinise the Bill. Graham Smith of Bird & Bird, in his submission to the Commons Science and Technology Committee,[9] notes that the terms ‘internet service’ and ‘internet communications service’ used in 47(4) are neither defined nor differentiated, as well as a number of other areas in which there appears to be significant doubt as to what does and does not count as ‘relevant communications data’ for retention purposes. One definition in the Bill particularly stands out: in 195(1) it is stated that ‘”data” includes any information which is not data’. Quite what is intended by this definition remains unclear.

6.3       In his report, ‘A question of trust’, David Anderson QC called for a law that would be ‘comprehensive and comprehensible’: the problems surrounding definitions and the lack of clarity about the separation of content and communications data mean that the Bill, as drafted, does not meet either of these targets yet. There are other issues that make this failure even more apparent. The lack of clarity over encryption – effectively leaving the coverage of encryption to RIPA rather than drafting new terms – has already caused a significant reaction in the internet industry. Whether or not the law would allow end-to-end encryption services such as Apple’s iMessage to continue in their current form, where Apple would not be able to decrypt messages themselves, needs to be spelled out clearly, directly and comprehensibly. In the current draft of the Bill it does not.

6.4       This could be solved relatively simply by the modification of 189 ‘Maintenance of technical capability’, and in particular 189(4)(c) to make it clear that the Secretary of State cannot impose an obligation to remove electronic protection that is a basic part of the service operated, and that the Bill does not require telecommunications services to be designed in such a way as to allow for the removal of electronic protection.

7          Future Proofing the Bill

7.1       One of the most important things for the Committee to consider is how well shaped the Bill is for future developments, and how the Bill might be protected from potential legal challenges. At present, there are a number of barriers to this, but there are ways forward that could provide this kind of protection.

7.2       The first of these relates to ICRs, as noted in section 5 above. The idea behind the gathering ICRs appears on the face of it to be based upon an already out-dated understanding of both the technology of the internet and of the way that people use it. In its current form, the idea of requiring communications providers to retain ICRs is also a hostage to fortune. The kind of data required is likely to become more complex, of a vastly greater volume and increasingly difficult to use. What is already an unconvincing case will become even less convincing as time passes. The best approach would seem to be to abandon the idea of requiring the collection of ICRs entirely, and looking for a different way forward.

7.3       Further, ICRs represent one of the two main ways in which the Bill appears to be vulnerable to legal challenge. It is important to understand that recent cases at both the CJEU (in particular the Digital Ireland case[10] and the Schrems case[11]) and the European Court of Human Rights (in particular the Zakharov case[12]) it is not just the examination of data that is considered to bring Article 8 privacy rights into play, but the gathering and holding of data. This is not a perverse trend, but rather a demonstration that the European courts are recognising some of the issues discussed above about the potential intrusion of gathering and holding data. It is a trend that is likely to continue. Holding data of innocent people on an indiscriminate basis is likely to be considered disproportionate. That means that the idea of ICRs – where this kind of data would be required to be held – is very likely to be challenged in either of these courts and indeed is likely to be overturned at some point.

7.4       The same is likely to be true of the ‘Bulk’ powers, unless those bulk powers are more tightly and clearly defined, including the giving of examples. At the moment quite what these bulk powers consist of – and how ‘bulky’ they are – is largely a matter of speculation, and while that speculation continues, so does legal uncertainty. If the powers involve the gathering and holding of the data of innocent people on a significant scale, a legal challenge either now or in the future seems to be highly likely.

7.5       It is hard to predict future developments either in communications technology or in the way that people use it. This, too, is something that seems certain to continue – and it means that being prepared for those changes needs to be built into the Bill. At present, this is done at least in part by having relatively broad definitions in a number of places, to try to ensure that future technological changes can be ‘covered’ by the law. This approach has a number of weaknesses – most notably that it gives less certainty than is helpful, and that it makes ‘function creep’ or ‘mission creep’ more of a possibility. Nonetheless, it is probably inevitable to a degree. It can, however, be ameliorated in a number of ways.

7.6       The first of these ways is to have a regular review process built in. This could take the form of a ‘sunset clause’, or perhaps a ‘renewal clause’ that requires a new, full, debate by Parliament on a regular basis. The precise form of this could be determined by the drafters of the Bill, but the intention should be clear: to avoid the situation that we find ourselves in today with the complex and almost incomprehensible regime so actively criticised by David Anderson QC, RUSI and to an extent the ISC in their reviews.

7.7       Accompanying this, it is important to consider not only the changes in technology, but the changes in people’s behaviour. One way to do this would be to charge those responsible for the oversight of communications with a specific remit to review how the powers are being used in relation to the current and developing uses of the internet. They should report on this aspect specifically.

8          Overall conclusions

8.1       I have outlined above a number of ways in which the Bill, in its current form, does not seem to be workable, proportionate, future-proofed and protected from potential legal challenges. I have made five specific recommendations:

8.1.1    I do not believe the case has been made for retaining ICRs. They appear unlikely to be of any real use to law enforcement in performing the functions that are set out, they add a significant range of risks and vulnerabilities, and are likely to end up being extremely expensive. This expense is likely to fall upon both the government – in which case it would be a waste of resources that could be put to more productive use to achieve the aims of the Bill – or ordinary internet users through increased connection costs.

8.1.2    The Bill needs to be more precise and open about the Bulk Powers, including a proper setting out of examples so that the Committee can make an appropriate judgment as to their proportionality and to reduce the likelihood of their being subject to legal challenge.

8.1.3    The Bill needs to be more precise about encryption and to be clear about the approach to end-to-end encryption. This is critical to building trust in the industry, and in particular with overseas companies such as those in Silicon Valley. It is also a way to future-proof the Bill: though some within the security and intelligence services may not like it, strong encryption is fundamental to the internet now and will become even more significant in the future. This should be embraced rather than fought against.

8.1.4    Oversight needs strengthening and broadening – including oversight of how the powers have been used in relation to changes in behaviour as well as changes in technology

8.1.5    The use of some form of renewal or sunset clause should be considered, to ensure that the powers are subject to full review and reflection by parliemant on a regular basis.

8.2       The question of resource allocation is a critical one. For example, have alternatives to the idea of retaining ICRs been properly considered for both effectiveness and costs? The level of intrusion of internet surveillance (as discussed in section 3 above) adds to the imperative to consider other options. Where a practice is so intrusive, and impacts upon such a wide range of human rights (Articles 8, 10, 11 and 14 of the ECHR – and possibly Article 6), a very high bar has to be set to make it acceptable. It is not at all clear either that the height of that bar has been appropriately set or that the benefits of the Bill mean that it has met them. In particular, the likely ineffectiveness of ICRs mean that it is very hard to argue that this part of the Bill would meet even a far lower requirement. The risks and vulnerabilities that retention of ICRs adds will in all probability exceed the possible benefits, even without considering the intrusiveness of their collection, retention and use.

8.3       The most important overall conclusion at this stage, however, is that more debate and analysis is needed. The time made available for analysis is too short for any kind of certainty, and that means that the debate is being held without sufficient information or understanding. Time is also needed to enable MPs and Lords to gain a better understanding of how the internet works, how people use it in practice, and how this law and the surveillance envisaged under its auspices could impact upon that use. This is not a criticism of MPs or Lords so much as a recognition that people in general do not have that much understanding of how the internet works – one of the best things about the internet is that we can use it quickly and easily without having to understand much of what is actually happening ‘underneath the bonnet’ as it were. In passing laws with significant effects – and the Investigatory Powers Bill is a very significant Bill – much more understanding is needed.

8.4       It is important for the Committee not to be persuaded that an event like the recent one in Paris should be considered a reason to ‘fast-track’ the Bill, or to extend the powers provided by the Bill. In Paris, as in all the notable terrorism cases in recent years, from the murder of Lee Rigby and the Boston Bombings to the Sydney Café Siege and the Charlie Hebdo shootings, the perpetrators (or at the very least a significant number of the perpetrators) were already known to the authorities. The problem was not a lack of data or a lack of intelligence, but the use of that data and that intelligence. The issue of resources noted above applies very directly here: if more resources had been applied to ‘conventional’ intelligence it seems, on the surface at least, as though there would have been more chance of the events being avoided. Indeed, examples like Paris, if anything, argue against extending large-scale surveillance powers. If the data being gathered is already too great for it to be properly followed up, why would gathering more data help?

8.5       As a consequence of this, in my opinion the Committee should look not just at the detailed powers outlined in the Bill and their justification, but also more directly at the alternatives to the overall approach of the Bill. There are significant costs and consequences, and the benefits of the approach as opposed to a different, more human-led approach, have not, at least in public, been proven. The question should be asked – and sufficient evidence provided to convince not just the Committee but the public and the critics in academia and elsewhere. David Anderson QC made ‘A Question of Trust’ the title of his review for a reason: gaining the trust of the public is a critical element here.




Dr Paul Bernal

Lecturer in Information Technology, Intellectual Property and Media Law

UEA Law School

University of East Anglia

Norwich NR4 7TJ



[1] The new ‘Hello Barbie’ doll, through which a Barbie Doll can converse and communicate with a child, has caused some controversy recently (see for example but is only one of a growing trend.

[2] See

[3] Available online at


[5] See for example the 2015 report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, where amongst other things he makes particular reference to encryption and anonymity.

[6] Some of the potential range of vulnerabilities are discussed in Chapter 6 of my book Internet Privacy Rights – Rights to Protect Autonomy, Cambridge University Press, 2014.

[7] See – in Danish

[8] This has been a major discussion point amongst legal academics for a long time. See for example the work of Daniel Solove, e.g. Reconstructing Electronic Surveillance Law, Geo. Wash. L. Review, vol 72, 2003-2004

[9] Published on the Committee website at

[10] Joined Cases C‑293/12 and C‑594/12, Digital Rights Ireland and Seitlinger and Others, April 2014, which resulted in the invalidation of the Data Retention Directive

[11] Case C-362/14, Maximillian Schrems v Data Protection Commissioner, October 2015, which resulted in the declaration of invalidity of the Safe Harbour agreement.

[12] Roman Zakharov v. Russia (application no. 47143/06), ECtHR, December 2015