UK and US sign agreement on access to terrorist data
Police and intelligence agencies are to be given expedited access to electronic communications sent by terrorists, serious crime gangs and white-collar criminals, under a new agreement between the UK and the US.
This deal — the first-ever bilateral data access agreement — was signed on Thursday by Priti Patel, UK home secretary, and William Barr, US attorney-general. It will compel US technology companies including Facebook, Google and Twitter to hand over the content of emails, texts and direct messages to British law enforcement bodies, and require the same of UK companies holding information sought by US investigators.
It takes police and security services from six months to two years to request and access electronic data, under a cumbersome “mutual legal assistance” treaty between the US and UK governments. Officials believe that the new agreement will reduce this process to “weeks or even days”. Facebook received just over 7,000 such requests from British authorities in the second half of last year, data from the company shows.
The difficulties for investigators have worsened as digital communications are increasingly stored in networks of virtual servers run by third-party providers and scattered across the world.
Ms Patel said the historic agreement would “dramatically speed up investigations, allowing our law enforcement agencies to protect the public.” Mr Barr added that “only by addressing the problem of timely access to electronic evidence of crime committed in one country that is stored in another, can we hope to keep pace with 21st-century threats.”
However, even under the new arrangements, it will be impossible for officers and agents to read encrypted messages sent on platforms such as WhatsApp, Telegram and Signal. Just as they signed the access deal, Ms Patel and Mr Barr sent an open letter to Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg protesting against the company’s proposed move to bring in end-to-end encryption across its messaging services.
The letter, which was also signed by Australian home affairs minister Peter Dutton, urged Facebook not to implement the changes “without including a means for lawful access to the content of communications to protect our citizens”.
A spokesman for Facebook said the company believed that “people have the right to have a private conversation online, wherever they are in the world”.
He added that Facebook was “consulting closely” with child safety experts, governments and technology companies before increasing the security and privacy of its messaging apps.
Under the US-UK agreement, enforcement bodies will submit requests for information concerning terrorism or other “serious crimes” to a judge, magistrate or “other independent authority”. While the US will have reciprocal access under a court order, British officials emphasised that they have obtained assurances preventing its use in cases involving the death penalty.
Despite the need for sign-off by a legal authority, the new powers have still attracted concern from civil liberties campaigners.
Nadia O’Mara, policy and campaigns officer at Liberty, a human rights group, called the new agreement a “worrying departure from the current system”, which would “prioritise speed over safeguarding”.
“It raises a number of serious human rights concerns, particularly given our own security services’ poor track record in handling sensitive data from tech companies,” Ms O’Mara said.
US campaigners have expressed similar concerns: when President Donald Trump passed the underlying legislation, known as the Cloud Act, last year, civil liberties groups warned that the rights of internet users would be compromised.
The American Civil Liberties Union described proposed safeguards written into the new law as “vague assurances, weak standards, and largely unenforceable restrictions”.
The deal is yet to be ratified in either Congress or the House of Commons, so is not expected to come into force until early next year.