Government 'to push through spy powers after election'

Pushing through major new spying powers will be the immediate priority of the Conservative government if it wins next month's election, according to The Sun. The Tory party will aim to push a vote through Parliament that will allow the use of controversial Technical Capability Notices (TCNs) to force telcos, ISPs and social networks to hand over details of users' communications, unnamed government ministers told the publication. The use of encryption by technology companies has been a hot-button political issue for some time, but has been exacerbated by recent terrorist attacks such as the terrorist attack in Manchester on Monday night.

"We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in," an anonymous official said. "The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Tech companies employ encryption to protect user data from hackers and identity thieves, but politicians have argued that it also provides terrorists with a hidden, untraceable method of coordinating strikes. This has led to multiple calls for encryption technology to be weakened or outright abolished, particularly from the current Conservative government. First provisioned for in the Investigatory Powers Act last year, the Technical Capability Notices (TCNs) would compel communications companies like telcos, ISPs and social media providers to hand over details of users' communications upon request from government or the security services. As with other powers detailed in the Act, each separate order would need to be approved, with a warrant signed by a Secretary of State and a senior judge.

However, as secondary legislation their use requires Parliamentary assent, after already going through a board of industry representatives and a four-week consultation that wasn't advertised to the public.

Under the proposed rules, the government will be able to intercept communications "in near real time". It also effectively bars companies from using end-to-end encryption in their products, as it requires that they "remove electronic protection applied... to the communications or data". In order to use TCNs, however, the government would have to pass further legislation through Parliament, offering more detail about how the powers would work in practice. The regulation will take the form of a Statutory Instrument, which means that Parliament can only approve or disapprove it, without allowing for any alterations or amendments. A draft version of the legislation was circulated among some of Britain's major telcos earlier this year, and was subsequently leaked by digital privacy campaigners the Open Rights Group. The government also recently completed a hurried four-week consultation on the powers, which is one of the last legally-required stages before they can be put to a vote. The vote will have to wait until after the general election, however, as Parliament is currently dissolved in advance of the general election. The new powers face strong opposition from digital rights campaigners, who argue that it impinges on citizens' privacy and affords the government the power to conduct Orwellian mass surveillance. "It is worrying to hear that in the wake of these attacks, the Home Office wants to push ahead with proposals to force companies to weaken the security of their products and services," the Open Rights Group said in response to the news. "Our core concern is that using TCNs to force companies to limit or bypass encryption or otherwise weaken the security of their products will put all of us at greater risk." "These will seem like narrow issues compared with Tuesday's events. And that is true. The wider issue, however, is that we as a society do not react to these events by emulating our enemies, by treating all citizens as a threat, and gradually removing British values such as the rule of law, due process and personal privacy."

Adam Shepherd

Adam Shepherd has been a technology journalist since 2015, covering everything from cloud storage and security, to smartphones and servers. Over the course of his career, he’s seen the spread of 5G, the growing ubiquity of wireless devices, and the start of the connected revolution. He’s also been to more trade shows and technology conferences than he cares to count.

Adam is an avid follower of the latest hardware innovations, and he is never happier than when tinkering with complex network configurations, or exploring a new Linux distro. He was also previously a co-host on the ITPro Podcast, where he was often found ranting about his love of strange gadgets, his disdain for Windows Mobile, and everything in between.

You can find Adam tweeting about enterprise technology (or more often bad jokes) @AdamShepherUK.