Apple raises concerns over UK's draft surveillance bill

Apple logo Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Apple waited until the last moment to file its response to the draft surveillance law

Apple has raised concerns about the UK's draft Investigatory Powers Bill.

The proposed law aims to overhaul rules governing the way the authorities can access people's communications.

The US-based firm has passed on its thoughts to a parliamentary committee scrutinising the legislation.

It focuses on three issues: encryption, the possibility of having to hack its own products, and the precedent it would set by agreeing to comply with UK-issued warrants.

The BBC has also learned that Microsoft, Facebook, Google, Yahoo and Twitter have also filed their own responses to the committee, which will publish the details in due course.

None of the companies have disclosed what they have said.

However, a spokesman for Microsoft commented: "The legislation must avoid conflicts with the laws of other nations and contribute to a system where like-minded governments work together, not in competition, to keep people more secure. We appreciate the government's willingness to engage in an open debate and will continue to advocate for a system that is workable on a global basis."

The Home Secretary Theresa May said in November that the new law was needed to fight crime and terror.

Monday was the final deadline for written evidence. The committee is expected to report in February 2016.

Blocking a backdoor

Apple's submission to the committee runs to eight pages.

The first issue raised is encryption.

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Image caption Apple's chief executive Tim Cook has previously voiced opposition to the idea of installing backdoors in its systems

Apple designs some of its products - including iMessage - using a technique called end-to-end encryption.

This means only the sender and recipient of a message can see it in an unscrambled form. The company itself cannot decrypt the contents.

This is something that law enforcement agencies have complained about.

Apple says that ensuring the security and privacy of customer's information against a range of malicious actors - such as criminals and hackers - is a priority.

Current legislation demands that companies take reasonable steps to provide the contents of communications on production of a warrant, but that has not been interpreted as requiring firms to redesign their systems to make it possible.

The government had briefed at the time that the bill was published that the legislation did not constitute any change to existing legislation.

But Apple appears to be concerned that the bill's language could still be interpreted more expansively and force the creation of a so-called "backdoor" to provide the authorities with access.

Apple argues that the existence of such a backdoor would risk creating a weakness that others then might exploit, making users' data less secure.

"A key left under the doormat would not just be there for the good guys. The bad guys would find it too," the company says.

It notes it still provides metadata - data about a communication - when requested, but not the actual content.

Media captionTheresa May set out the case for the new law in November

Overseas warrants

A second area of concern relates to the issue of "extra-territoriality".

Existing British legislation - and the bill - maintain that companies need to comply with warrants for information wherever they are based and wherever the data resides.

The government argues this is vital when criminals and terrorists often use communications platforms based in other countries.

US companies have long resisted extra-territoriality on the basis that if they accept they are obliged under UK law, then they fear other countries - they often point to Russia and China - will simply demand the same right, and that such assertions may conflict with the privacy laws of the countries in which the data is held.

There have been discussions - led by former British Ambassador to Washington Sir Nigel Sheinwald - to try to come to some form of agreement between the US, UK governments and Silicon Valley to overcome some of the concerns and facilitate better sharing of data.

Hacked customers

A third concern from Apple relates to the provisions of the bill relating to "equipment interference".

This refers to a range of techniques used by police and intelligence agencies, which extend from hacking into devices remotely to interfering with the hardware itself.

This is one way around the spread of encryption and is one of the areas of activity - along with bulk data collection - that the UK state has been doing for some time but is aiming to be more transparent about.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Apple does not want to be forced to hack devices belonging to its customers

Apple's concerns relate to the possibility that it could be ordered to hack products belonging to its customers and to do so in secret.

"The bill as it stands seems to threaten to extend responsibility for hacking from government to the private sector," the company's submission states.

Stretched laws

Aspects of these issues have been voiced by Apple and other companies before.

But one of the key concerns about the new legislation is that it contains ambiguities.

Previous laws, such as the 1984 Telecoms Act, were stretched and expanded in secret to carry out acts that the public knew little about.

The stated aim of the current bill is to improve transparency and accountability.

Apple may well be hoping that it can force the government to clarify what is really intended and possible.

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