Britain needs a fresh start for privacy

Privacy

Witnesses: Professor Bill Buchanan, Erka Koivunen, Cyber Security Advisor, F-Secure and Eric King, Deputy Director, Privacy International.

Yesterday, F-Secure’s cyber security adviser Erka Koivunen was called to the British Parliament to give expert witness testimony to the Joint Committee scrutinising the draft Investigatory Powers Bill (also known as the Snoopers’ Charter).

Erka’s testimony follows F-Secure’s bid back in October to warn the government that its plans to implicate technology companies in its bid to collect data on people’s digital lives was technically flawed and potentially harmful to British business. You can watch his testimony here — it begins at timestamp 15:13:50 or 58:45 on a mobile device.

The draft Bill was introduced in early November, the Joint Committee has spent the last month or so listening to witness testimonies and receiving written evidence. We can expect the Committee to give its report in early next year after which the Bill would proceed to the Parliament sessions.

The Bill proposed by the Home Office aims to overhaul the powers law enforcement and intelligence agencies have to collect data within the UK. However, given the fact that most of the activities have been taking place already, the biggest changes appear to be how the government would define specific terms to its advantage.

We, and many other expert witnesses, have voiced our concerns over the ambiguity of the terms and lack of clarity as to which type of companies the requirements would fall to.

The text refers to telecommunications service operators as ‘Communications Service Providers’ (CSP), apparently in an effort to expand the scope from traditional operators to the likes of Skype, Facebook and Apple. Regardless of where in the world they operate from. The loosely defined providers are expected to collect and store data of their users’ internet usage – the so-called Internet Connection Records (ICR). In some government comments, these have been likened to an itemised telephone bill. Sounds harmless, doesn’t it?

There are also passages about interception and something that has been referred to as ‘Equipment Interference’. These are conducted in a targeted fashion but also in bulk or in a subject-matter fashion.

Nice, but what do these terms mean, exactly?

Interception is something that a layman would call eavesdropping.

This is where somebody else’s communication is being monitored, copied and stored without the consent of the communicating parties. According to the Bill, that someone can be an individual, a group of people exhibiting similar trait or basically everyone. The eavesdropper may snoop in on the content of the communication or may be limited to the so-called metadata. Eavesdropping can be considered to be a passive activity although the preparatory act of equipping the communications systems for eavesdropping and the data extraction are anything but passive.

Equipment Interference is a euphemism that covers everything from ‘police malware’ to be planted on a suspect’s computer and ranging all the way to introduction of backdoors to software products or outright breaking in to other people’s computers and networks. These actions are active by nature, and highly covert. The law enforcement and intelligence officials will not discuss anything about what, how or when. But here they are, asking for parliament’s blessing.

Even the obvious-sounding term appears to be laden with hidden meanings. In the evidence given to the Committee, it has become clear that the proposed Internet Connection Record is not a thing. This type of ‘itemized’ data is not being collected at the moment and the operators see no value in collecting such material. Rather the contrary! Collecting and storing session logs from all internet traffic and all users generates huge amounts of data that must at the same time be kept secure and accessible. Not an easy task!

To accompany Erka Koivunen’s appearance, F-Secure has also submitted written evidence which provides more detail for the Committee to consider.

Here are F-Secure’s main concerns:

Lack of clarity
o There is a great level of ambiguity in the Bill’s scope and applicability to not only F-Secure but technology and cyber security industry as a whole
o The Bill can be interpreted in a fashion that it forbids the use of strong cryptography, most notably the use of end-to-end encryption.

Extremely broad mandate
o The Bill introduces a variety of bulk collection methods and even the so-called targeted methods appear overly broad
o Our own evidence suggests that LE hasn’t exhausted even the existing avenues to acquire information via targeted requests.

One mustn’t break the technological foundations of our information society in an effort to defend our safety
o By deliberately weakening cryptography and breaking the cyber security protections, one does harm to businesses and to ordinary citizens by exposing them to criminal activity online.
o By constantly lowering the barrier to engage in active network attacks one only encourages other nations and non-state actors to follow suit.

Democracy requires transparency, freedom of speech requires privacy and we should expect that authorities give much consideration to proportionality. What is commendable about the Bill, however, is that what we believe to be the first time, the mandate of law enforcement and intelligence services to operate in cyberspace is being discussed in the Parliament. While we have strong reservation towards the Bill, we applaud British government’s courage to bring the difficult topic for the public debate and subject it to democratic process. We hope this is not the end but rather a fresh start.

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