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Britain Has a New Snooper-in-Chief

And her name is Theresa May.

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Boring, competent, and highly cautious, Theresa May, Britain’s home secretary and as of Wednesday its prime minister, is sometimes favorably compared to Germany’s Angela Merkel. Indeed, the two share a political style oriented toward efficiency and away from ideology, toward getting results and away from the spotlight. But that’s where the comparisons end.

Take intelligence policy. Whereas Merkel grew up under the suffocating eye of the East German secret police, May will enter No. 10 Downing St. on Wednesday after six years ensconced in the British national security apparatus. May has championed intelligence legislation — the Investigatory Powers Bill — that Privacy International, an advocacy group, calls the “most draconian surveillance law in the democratic world.” And when she opens the door to No. 10, she’ll bring it with her.

“Government hacking powers, mass surveillance, and collection and sharing of data,” is how Gus Hosein, the executive director of Privacy International, summed up May’s agenda as home secretary, a position in which she oversaw the police, the MI5 domestic security services, and border control. In that role, May increased data collection on travelers in the EU and, in Hosein’s words, used “any opportunity to decry human rights laws as the bane of our existence.”

If she continues that legacy, “this country is facing a dark illiberal period,” Hosein said.

But an irony shadows these outraged screams by privacy advocates: The surveillance and intelligence activities authorized by what they call the “snoopers’ charter” are for the most part already being carried out. The Investigatory Powers Bill simply takes the British intelligence community’s current activities and puts them on firmer legal footing. It shines a light on what had been happening wholly in the shadows before and adds a measure more of oversight. Privacy advocates argue that the bulk surveillance and computer hacking powers that May seeks to make formal should be rolled back, not given explicit legal authorization.

“This bill codifies the practices revealed by Edward Snowden that the [National Security Agency] and [the Government Communications Headquarters] are involved in — whether that’s building hacking technologies, undermining encryption, or collecting bulk data,” said Jim Killock, the executive director of the Open Rights Group, a digital rights organization.

Under fire from civil libertarians, May has in recent weeks agreed to make some concessions on the law, including restrictions on when journalists can be targeted for surveillance, protections for members of Parliament, and a provision that surveillance not be authorized when the information sought can be obtained by less intrusive means. May has also agreed to an independent review of the legislation.

Killock argues these concessions amount to cosmetic reforms. He considers the bill’s most novel and frightening provision to be something he refers to as the “request filter.” The bill, he says, will require telecommunications companies of all sorts — telephone companies, internet service providers, etc. — to retain customer data for at least a year.

The government, under the provisions of the bill, will be able to set up a search engine to query that huge pile of metadata to pull up location data, call records, and internet browsing data, Killock says. It will give police on-demand access to an Orwellian array of personal data, he argues.

The House of Commons has approved the measure, and the bill is currently before the House of Lords. This week, Lords pushed for further changes to strengthen protections for journalists. May and her fellow Conservatives lack a majority in the House of Lords and must work across the aisle to forge an alliance with the Labour Party and Liberal Democrats to pass the measure.

With Labour in disarray, and British politics fixated on whether and how the country will exit the EU, it’s unlikely the opposition will torpedo the bill or succeed in significantly reforming it.

May is, unlike some of her challengers for the Tory leadership, hardly a neophyte. Her ascent to Britain’s most powerful political office comes on the heels of what is almost universally described as a highly competent stint as head of the Home Office. A poisoned chalice of a bureaucratic perch, the home secretary deals with immigration, terrorism, and a slew of other headaches “where there is virtually no good press, but so much can go wrong,” said Robin Simcox, an intelligence expert at the Heritage Foundation.

Her low profile and apparent distaste for the media has left British (and American) tabloids with little more to obsess over than her taste for leopard-print heels and other mildly adventurous footwear.

Before this week, May was a rarely seen minister tasked with tackling the pesky security issues that most would be loath to take on. “This is essentially the equivalent of James Clapper becoming president of the United States,” said Susan Hennessey, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former attorney at the NSA, referring to the veteran intelligence official who currently serves as the U.S. director of national intelligence.

Indeed, a former senior American intelligence official said May’s ascension to the prime ministership was the best news he had heard since the surprising British vote to leave the European Union. American intelligence officials regard May as a competent, capable counterpart, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity to share impressions of an allied leader. As a former home secretary, he said, May has a “pretty keen insight” into the value of U.S.-U.K. intelligence cooperation.

That former senior intelligence official said May’s proposed law would put the U.K. on a “more level footing with the United States” and subject British authorities to a more rigorous oversight regime, as in the U.S. model.

But cooperation between London and Washington also has some computer security experts worried about the direction that May will take British intelligence agencies. The Snowden revelations revealed that the NSA carried out several of its most aggressive collection programs on British soil, said Nicholas Weaver, a senior researcher on networking and security at the University of California, Berkeley.

If passed, the Investigatory Powers Bill would codify such programs, with potentially dire privacy consequences for British citizens.

“British citizens have, in some cases, more rights from the NSA than from their own country,” Weaver said, referring to the limits in place at Fort Meade on the collection of foreigners’ data.

Photo credit: Carl Court/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace. @EliasGroll

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