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British legislation would give police greater access to residents’ Web visits

British Home Secretary Theresa May speaks in the House of Commons in London on Nov. 4. “Technology has moved on. The law hasn’t,” May said. “We need to update the law so that our law-enforcement and security agencies have the powers they need to continue to keep us safe.”

British Home Secretary Theresa May speaks in the House of Commons in London on Nov. 4. “Technology has moved on. The law hasn’t,” May said. “We need to update the law so that our law-enforcement and security agencies have the powers they need to continue to keep us safe.”

(Associated Press)

Records of every website visited by every person in Britain over the previous 12 months would be kept and made accessible to law-enforcement agencies under a new bill introduced in Parliament that would expand authorities’ reach in cyberspace to fight serious crime, including terrorism.

The legislation, unveiled Wednesday, also aims to codify the bulk collection of communications data that Britain’s spy agencies have been practicing without an explicit parliamentary mandate. Some of these methods of vacuuming up so-called “metadata” were exposed in documents leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward J. Snowden.

The new bill would enshrine in law the security agencies’ right to hack into and bug computers and phones. But intercepting a person’s emails and text messages would need the approval of both a senior government minister and a senior judge, a “double-lock” system designed to keep major breaches of privacy to a minimum, Home Secretary Theresa May said.

The proposals form the British government’s long-promised attempt to overhaul surveillance and intelligence-gathering laws widely agreed to be out of date. Some were put in place well before the Internet became a central facet of contemporary life.

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“Technology has moved on. The law hasn’t,” May told the House of Commons. “We need to update the law so that our law-enforcement and security agencies have the powers they need to continue to keep us safe.”

But civil liberties groups described the proposals as taking further bites out of personal privacy in Britain, whose residents are already among the most-monitored people in the world. Security cameras are ubiquitous in outdoor spaces and inside many buildings.

Particularly troubling to critics is the provision compelling telecom companies to track and store information on which websites their customers visit and which social-media apps, such as the popular messaging service WhatsApp, they use. The data, to be kept for a year, would not include the content of any messages or the individual pages looked at beyond a website’s homepage.

May called it “simply the modern equivalent of an itemized phone bill.” But critics sharply disagreed, noting that even U.S. intelligence agencies aren’t known to collect such information.

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“This long-awaited bill constitutes a breathtaking attack on the Internet security of every man, woman and child in our country,” Shami Chakrabarti, director of the human rights group Liberty, said in a statement.

She called on lawmakers to amend the bill to “strike a better balance between privacy and surveillance.”

The legislation is expected to be formally debated by the full Parliament next spring. The Conservative Party government of Prime Minister David Cameron wants the law in place by the end of 2016. Officials contend that a powerful but well-controlled surveillance system is imperative not just to thwart terrorism but to stop organized crime, break up pedophile rings and help find kidnap victims.

The opposition Labor Party indicated Wednesday that it was broadly supportive of the proposals.

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“This is neither a snooper’s charter or a plan for mass surveillance,” said Andy Burnham, the party’s spokesman on home affairs.

His comment alluded to the Cameron administration’s previous attempt to update Britain’s surveillance laws, which went down in flames in 2012. The package of proposals put forward then allowed for even more extensive spying on the Internet and was quickly dubbed a “snooper’s charter” by critics. Opposition from the Conservatives’ own junior partner in government helped sink the proposals.

This time, the Conservatives command a clear majority in Parliament and do not need the support of other parties to pass legislation.

Still, May insisted that the new bill was less intrusive and offered more privacy safeguards than the previous version. The tandem approval of a government minister and a senior judge for the interception of emails and text messages would prevent abuse of the system, she said.

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Local government agencies would be prohibited from accessing the data on website visits held for 12 months by telecom companies.

May’s team also scrapped the idea of banning private use of encryption services.

“Other countries are looking to what we do here, and it’s important we get it right,” said Joanna Cherry, a lawmaker from the Scottish National Party. “Access to private communications must always be necessary, targeted and proportionate. ... Safeguards are crucial.”

Follow @HenryHChu on Twitter for news out of Europe.

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