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Government presses for more access to security data



Envoy’s summary talks of new arrangements in EU and changes in convention with US

The UK government is talking to others about the possibility of accessing each other’s information on serious crime and counter-terrrorism more easily, and wants to reform the law that makes it possible within the EU.

It is part of an effort to gain easier access to data from different countries for intelligence and law enforcement, the details of which have are in a newly published summary of the relevant work by Sir Nigel Sheinwald, the prime minister’s special envoy on data sharing in the sector.

He says there is scope for more data sharing between “like-minded” countries with shared threats, and that this would save the security agencies and police forces from having to make multiple requests. This could be done to an extent through the EU’s Mutual Legal Assistance Convention, but its scope is not sufficiently wide, but Shienwald’s office has identified a number of other channels for improving cooperation between UK and partner agencies.

The situation with the US is more complex, partly because the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) is regarded as being over-bureaucratic and unresponsive to requests. Sheinwald says he is pressing for reform of the treaty, but also looking at other possibilities.


“I have therefore been discussing with the companies and the US and other governments a solution that would allow certain democratic countries – with similar values and high standards of oversight, transparency and privacy protection – to gain access to content in serious crime and counter-terrorism cases through direct requests to the companies,” he says.

“This proposal offers a sustainable and longer term solution to data sharing and would aid in resolving inter-jurisdictional issues.”

He adds that this would not undermine the case for updating powers, which he is also taking forward.

There is also scope for UK police to get into US communications data from the country’s communication service providers (CSPs) directly. Sheinwald says that he has discussed options and that the companies are developing their own technical solutions, including online portals.

Apparently conscious of the potential for raising new anxieties over civil liberties, Sheinwald recommends that the government should look at improving transparency around the number and nature of requests to overseas CSPs.

Encryption problem

He acknowledges the problems created by the development of more devices offering end-to-end encryption and which can store users’ content rather than depositing it in data centres. But he steers clear of making any specific recommends regarding encryption.

In January prime minister David Cameron stirred up a round of controversy with a suggestion that it should not be possible to completely exclude government from listening in on a phone call.

An accompanying statement from the Cabinet Office provided a non-committal response, saying the government will now “take forward” Sheinwald’s proposals.

Image from under Open Government Licence v3.0


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