Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Paris Attacks Help Build Case for Stiffer U.K. Snooping Rules

A draft bill on the table, which has been criticized by Apple and civil liberties groups, may have a better chance after terrorism in France.

The terrorist attacks in Paris may make it harder for the technology industry and privacy advocates to resist proposed rules that would require Web, software and phone companies to aid in wide-ranging U.K. surveillance efforts.

"The attacks make it incredibly difficult to argue for individual privacy,” said Emily Taylor, an associate fellow at the London-based public policy think tank Chatham House. “That seems like a ridiculous thing to argue for when people are being mowed down on a night out."

The draft Investigatory Powers Bill, which the U.K. government introduced into Parliament in early November, has been criticized by civil liberties groups such as Privacy International and representatives of some technology companies, including Apple Inc. Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook.

But the death of 129 people at cafés and a concert hall in the French capital may swing public opinion in favor of the proposed law, said Taylor, who is also a director at technology consulting firm Oxford Information Labs Ltd.

The debate over encryption has swung back and forth in response to events over the years in Europe and the U.S. Apple, Google Inc. and Yahoo! Inc. all incorporated stronger encryption in their products after revelations of U.S. government spying were exposed by Edward Snowden two years ago. The pendulum has shifted back again with U.S. officials now calling for limits on technology that make government snooping more difficult.

Even before the attacks, many Britons seemed to favor greater power for the security services. A January 2015 survey published by British polling firm YouGov found that 53 percent of Britons supported increased surveillance and that 63 percent of people trusted the U.K. intelligence services to act responsibly.

Changes in public attitudes towards the proposed law will depend on whether there are further attacks by Islamic State in Europe in the coming weeks and months, said Mike Indian, a senior analyst at DeHavilland, a political intelligence and U.K. parliamentary monitoring consultancy in London. Whatever information emerges about how the terrorists who carried out the Paris attacks planned and communicated, and whether they used encrypted messaging services that security services cannot readily tap, will affect public perceptions of the bill, Indian said.

The U.K. draft law includes authority for intelligence agencies to engage in bulk collection of Internet metadata and hack into computer networks as well as a mandate that Internet service providers retain customers’ Web browsing histories for at least a year, and that software companies help security services bypass encryption.

Tim Cook, chief executive officer of Apple.
Tim Cook, chief executive officer of Apple.
Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Cook told The Daily Telegraph earlier this month that the bill could have “very dire consequences.” Any “backdoor” that would allow security services to access encrypted communication could also be used by criminals, Cook said. He said he thought the public doesn’t want companies to have access to their encrypted messages. Apple, Microsoft and Google did not respond to requests for comment.

So far, no information has been revealed by French or Belgian investigators about what communication techniques the terrorists involved in the Paris attack used. Previously, Western counter-terrorism officials have raised concerns about the encryption used in services such as Wickr, Kik, Surespot and Telegram. Belgian Interior Minister Jan Jambon said at a Politico conference in Brussels last week that Western intelligence agencies struggled to tap conversations held through the PlayStation 4 game console.

“We are dedicated to checking behavior, and we urge our users and partners to report activities that may be offensive, suspicious or illegal,” Sony Corp., which makes the PlayStation, said in a prepared statement. “When we identify or are notified of such conduct and verify it, we are committed to reviewing it and taking appropriate actions.”

Unlike in the U.S., where security officials have taken Silicon Valley to task in recent days for not doing more to help intelligence agencies access encrypted digital communications, in the U.K., authorities have been careful to avoid any perception that they are using the Paris attacks to advance a political agenda, DeHavilland’s Indian said.

David Cameron
David Cameron, U.K. prime minister and leader of the Conservative Party, delivers a speech on Oct. 7, 2014.
Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Over the weekend, Lord Alex Carlile, a Liberal Democrat member of the Parliament’s upper house and an expert on the country’s terrorism legislation, called for the bill to be fast-tracked through Parliament. Prime Minister David Cameron seemed to entertain this idea, telling BBC Radio 4 on Monday that "I think we should look at the time table" for the bill’s consideration.

But Cameron’s own Home Secretary, Theresa May, whose department tabled the controversial bill, told the House of Commons on Monday that while the government would “look at all counter-terrorism legislation and review the necessary time for it,” it was important that the law “have proper scrutiny.” Without being fast-tracked, the proposed legislation would be debated over the next several months and, if passed, would come into force at the start of 2017.

The bill’s passage is far from assured. Chris Fairbank, a senior political U.K. monitoring consultant at Dods, a British political intelligence firm, said Cameron would have to convince his own party’s more libertarian-minded backbenchers to support the legislation. And DeHavilland’s Indian said the prime minister may ultimately have to rely on support from within the opposition Labour Party to secure the bill’s passage—something that would likely require revising the draft bill to enhance protections for civil liberties.

Dominic Grieve, a Conservative Member of Parliament who chairs the body’s Intelligence and Security Committee, said he thinks there’s broad support in Parliament for the bill, even though there are many details that need to be resolved.

—With Christopher Palmeri