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Two UK-based ISPs (internet service providers) have been helping the government track the online activity of their customers. The tracking is part of a law passed in 2016 under the guise of helping the government fight crime.
The controversial Investigatory Powers Act of 2016 granted the law enforcement agencies the power to request ISPs to provide internet usage data of their customers.The Home Office, a ministerial department of the UK government responsible for security, law and order, and immigration, and the National Crime Agency, with the help of two ISPs have been testing the new web-spying powers.
The two ISPs are helping the government agencies by creating ICRs (internet connection records) which reveal the websites someone visited and when they visited them, their IP addresses, and how much data they downloaded.
In theory, ICRs do not reveal the exact pages on a website someone visited or what they read. Still, there’s so much information about a person’s habits that can land in the hands of the government. For example, from the political news sites you visit, the government can have a pretty good idea of your affiliations and ideologies.
That said, there are restrictions on who can access the ICRs, and they’re supposed to have a good reason for accessing it.
The Home Office says that the trial is its early stages and on a small-scale. But, a report on the BBC claims the trial has been going on for months.
The purpose of the trial, according to the Home Office, is to explore the type of data that can be obtained and how useful the data could be.
Privacy violations aside, the trial, first reported by Wired, is wrapped in secrecy. It is not clear how many ICRs are being collected and the number of internet users involved, or even whether the internet users involved have a history of criminal activity.
The Investigatory Powers Act of 2016 raised severe privacy concerns, with critics calling it the “snoopers’ charter.” The act grants the secretary of state, after approval from a judge, the authority to order ISPs to keep ICRs for as much as a year. Additionally, the language used is so broad that critics suspect that all ISPs will be required to keep those records for all customers.
Brits cannot know if their internet usage is being provided to the government since ISPs are prevented from saying they have received a data retention order.
“It’s needles in haystacks, and this is collecting the entire haystack,” said Heather Burns of the Open Rights Group. “We should have the right to not have every single click of what we do online hoovered up into a surveillance net on the assumption that there might be criminal activity taking place.”
“Yes, they’re ticking the boxes about the oversight and the judicial approval every way they can,” she added. “But there’s still an aspect of transparency which is crucially missing here.”
The existence of the trial was never publicly announced. Instead, the government chose to bury it in a 168-page annual report by the Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office (Ipco) of 2020, and summarize it in two short paragraphs.
Speaking to BBC, a spokesperson for Ipco said they were conducting “regular reviews” of the trial to ascertain that the data collection is “necessary and proportionate.”
“Once a full assessment of the trial has been carried out, a decision will be made on whether there is a case for national rollout,” the spokesperson added.