Braverman proposes surveillance law update to give authorities more sway over telecoms firms

Written by Sam Trendall on 7 June 2023 in News

Tweaks to Investigatory Powers Act could require companies to provide data even before appeals are settled and alert authorities to technical updates

Credit: Alexander Lesnitsky/Pixabay

Home secretary Suella Braverman has published proposals to make changes to surveillance laws that would place greater requirements on telecoms providers to provide data to authorities.

Among the suggested amendments to the 2016 Investigatory Powers Act is a change that means companies could be legally compelled to comply with a request for access to citizens’ communications – even if they continuing to appeal the request through official channels. It is also proposed that telecoms firms be required to keep government informed of any “planned changes to their service that could have a negative impact” on law enforcement’s ability to requisition data.

The efficacy of the act – often referred to as the snoopers’ charter – is in danger of being eroded by changes in the technology and business landscape, Braverman said, in her introduction to a public consultation document outlining five proposed changes.

Once a request for access to communications data has been signed off by the home secretary and a judicial commissioner, firms that believe the demands are excessive or otherwise unsatisfactory can refer the request back for further ministerial review. Under the current regime, companies are not obligated to comply with the request while this review is ongoing.

The first proposed change set out in the consultation is intended to address “this capability gap during the review… [with] a general requirement to maintain the status quo through this period, ensuring that our lawful access to data is maintained”.

The second amendment would compel telecoms providers to “cooperate with the consultation” precedes the issuance of a formal notice requesting their data. This would include an obligation to share “technical information” with the home secretary.

The government also wishes to tighten the terms of the law to ensure it is applicable “to apply to the operators to whom it was intended to apply, including those that have adopted more complex corporate structures” that may include overseas-based operations delivering UK services.

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The penultimate suggestion is that provisions should be added to the act that would require communications firms to proactively tell the home secretary before making any changes to the services or infrastructure that might impact authorities’ ability to access data.

The consultation said: “This would be intended to facilitate early engagement between operators and the government so that, where necessary, appropriate steps can be taken in good time to ensure that any negative impact on investigatory powers is fully considered, and so that we can ensure continuity of lawful access to data against a background of changing technology.”

While the first four amendments would seem, in various ways, to tip the balance of power somewhat towards authorities and away from telecoms companies, the final proposal suggests an additional safeguard in which watchdog the Investigatory Powers Commissioner would be required to reassess effective data-access notices every two years to “ensure [they] remain necessary and proportionate”. This would apply to instances where authorities wish to maintain the arrangement exactly as is – with variations to notices already subject to review by the commissioner and the home secretary, under the original terms of the act.

The consultation on these proposals is open until 11am until 31 July. The government is inviting responses from telecoms firms, police and intelligence services, civil society, academics, and the general public. Submissions can be made via email.

In her introduction to the consultation, Braverman said that “for many years, the UK government has had the power to place requirements on telecommunications operators to assist with national security and law enforcement... [this] is therefore not about the creation of new powers, it is about the efficacy of long-standing powers the necessity of which has long been established”.

“The changes proposed in this consultation seek to improve the mechanisms, that if required, allow the secretary of state to act to ensure that our investigatory powers remain effective, and to protect the capabilities of our law enforcement and intelligence agencies,” she added. “It is clear that there are ways in which the current notices regimes can be, and should be, improved in that regard.”

Alongside the potential changes to surveillance law, the National Communications Data Service (NCDS) – the little-publicised Home Office unit that coordinates government’s access to data from telecoms operators – is currently engaged in a programme to adopt “new ways of working”.

The unit intends to adopt a new “operating model” that reflects changes in the tech sector in recent years. This is supported by a project to refresh NCDS’s contracts with commercial provides – as part of which PublicTechnology this week revealed that the unit had awarded a two-year £6m deal through which consultancy North Highland “will provide project portfolio management services to the authority due to the lack of this skill set within the organisation”.

Work undertaken by NCDS under the powers of the Investigatory Powers Act has previously included supporting the development of a platform that could allow authorities to search for citizens’ internet connection records – which includes information on all sites and apps accessed by an individual.


About the author

Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology. He can be reached on


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