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Is the UK secretly testing a web snooping tool?

15/04/2021

In 2016, the Investigatory Powers Act came into law, which has been dubbed the 'Snoopers Charter'. This law means that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) could trial storing browsing data for up to twelve months if required by security forces. Some civil liberty groups such as the Open Rights Group – a privacy and internet freedom organisation based in the UK – now believe this may not be fit for purpose. These groups argue this is indicated by the fact it has taken years to get into the current trial stage, which can often signify an act isn't working well; in this case, it would mean security forces are potentially storing swathes of personal data when only a very small amount is required in specific incidences. The lack of transparency around this technology had also raised concern amongst such groups who argue that the quantity of data and time it's retained for is worrying, although such data can only be brought as evidence in a trial if it has been approved by a senior judge.

The Home Office, National Crime Agency, and two unidentified ISPs are involved in creating the mechanism that would enable this to happen, however not much else is known about the technology. If this came to light and was officially released, it would be the largest and one of the most robust surveillance tools used by a democratic country. If the trial is a success, the system could be expanded nationwide, however, the tech is reportedly not at this stage of development and would require extensive funding.

The trial involves the ISP creating Internet Connection Records which would contain the data from your browsing history, such as what sites or apps were being viewed at what time and date, and where you were accessing the websites from along with the IP address. In July 2019, this trial was used for a real case, and again in October 2019, according to a report by the Investigatory Powers Commissioner. They have said that the trial undergoes regular reviews and that the data collected is only what is necessary and proportionate to the case.

The regulation will be under review within a year, which may shed more light on how this technology works and how much data is collected.

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