Local authorities will be prevented from looking at people's internet browsing under the draft Investigatory Powers Bill
Local authorities will be barred from snooping on web browsing records under proposed new terror laws, but still allowed to tap into other communications data.
And a new offence of “knowingly or recklessly obtaining communications data” will threaten town hall officials with up to two years in prison if they abuse their powers.
The draft Investigatory Powers Bill attempts to enshrine in law the previously covert activities of GCHQ, which were uncovered by whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Last year, “emergency” temporary laws passed by the coalition saw many public bodies – including some government departments - lose all their rights to access communication data. At that time local authorities retained those powers, but were required to go through the National Anti-Fraud Network (NAFN) to make the request on their behalf.
NAFN was already used by many councils to assess applications to trace debtors, obtain legal records and for internal investigations.
The new bill retains the system for most communications data, but bans town halls from “acquiring internet connection records for any purpose”.
The crackdown was immediately seen as part of efforts by Home Secretary Theresa May to calm opposition to her controversial surveillance law plans.
Under the proposals, everyone’s internet activity must be stored for a year by service providers, with police and intelligence officers able to see the names of sites visited without a warrant. But if those agencies want to look at the detail of which web pages someone is visiting – or saying over services such as Skype - they will need a warrant signed by the Home Secretary.
In addition, a “double lock” approval system will see a panel of around seven High Court judges able to veto interception warrants, although not in “urgent cases”.
May said of the new bill: “We need to update our legislation to ensure it is modern, fit for purpose and can respond to emerging threats as technology advances.
“But I am also clear that the exercise and scope of investigatory powers should be clearly set out and subject to stringent safeguards and robust oversight.”
On the requirement for councils to go through a central authority, the temporary law said: “This is a safeguard that ensures local authorities are only able to acquire communications data through an experienced shared single point of contact service.”
Most town halls have continued to use surveillance powers despite the need to gain the approval of a magistrate before undertaking any “covert techniques”. A 2013 report by the Interception of Communications Commissioner found that 132 councils had used surveillance powers in the previous 12 months.
Image: Electronic Frontier Foundation graphic, Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 through Wikimedia.