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New English Law Allows Government to View a Year’s Worth of Browsing History from an Individual Approved by a Judge

Wired reported on May 15, 2023, that law enforcement actors in the United Kingdom have decided to move forward with introducing vast new surveillance capabilities on a national scale. The new systems have been under testing and come in the context of a 2016 law passed by Parliament called the Investigatory Powers Act, which drew privacy rights criticisms and was termed the “Snooper’s Charter.” At issue in the law in part was the basis of the new controversial programs. The law authorized the government to be able to order that internet and phone companies hold onto users’ browsing histories for a year if the government got permission from a judge. This act of data collection was termed “internet connection records” (ICR) and critics say it is a violation of privacy. ICRs can be both records of where online a user has visited and what applications they’ve used. The data can allow collectors to view a user’s IP address, when they accessed data, and what their customer number is. The data can also allow collectors to view where online a user’s activity is happening if not what exactly the user is doing on a cite. An example of this distinction is that someone viewing an ICR would be able to see that a user visited a news site but would not be able to tell what articles the user was reading.

A recent UK government operational review of the implementation of the Investigatory Powers Act determined that gathering data on citizens represented a “significant operational benefit” to law enforcement. It cited an example of the implementation. Authorities had reportedly used the data collection methods, which have remained mysterious and out of the public’s eye, to gather information on who was accessing sites featuring unlawful images of children. The data collection produced some 120 alleged users. Out of the group, four had previously been on the radar of law enforcement.

Yet, screw-ups are possible. There is at least one publicly known instance of a company oversharing a user’s data due to a “technical error.” And, as mentioned, the processes of data collection have remained purposefully unclear to the public. For example, it has yet to be disclosed exactly which phone and internet companies are cooperating with the government in the collection efforts. The government has used claims of security risks to justify keeping details of the collection programs secret, while also claiming that the government is one of the most transparent in the world on such matters. Yet, it is clear that trials are still occurring and that a national implementation will potentially be in the offing before long.

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