UK Government plan to ban WhatsApp dropped, as Theresa May abandons many of proposed new powers for spies

Campaigners say that climbdown is 'spin', to allow Government to sneak in many more intrusive powers

Controversial plans to allow spies and the police to look in on anyone’s internet browsing history have been dropped.

The Government has announced that it will no longer proceed with widely-criticsed plans to ban or dramatically weaken encryption so that it could read the messages of everyone in the country. While ministers described the change of policy as a climbdown, campaigning groups said that the move was spin and that many of the worst parts of Theresa May’s planned surveillance powers will remain.

The Government has long been looking to give sweeping new powers to spies, which would include the ability to look in on the communications of people in the UK. Senior politicians have repeatedly stressed that they would look to strengthen powers of the country’s spying agencies, and ban the technology that keeps them from snooping on communications.

The investigatory powers bill is the latest attempt to push through such powers, and will be published on Wednesday in draft form. But it will be without one of the major intrusive parts that had long been suggested, reports the Guardian.

The bill will in fact ban the police and intelligence services from looking in on people’s internet browsing histories, according to a statement. That power has been demanded by the security services, but their access to internet connections will instead “be strictly limited and targeted”, according to the statement.

Plans to weaken encryption so that spies can read messages will no longer go ahead.  The requirement on UK internet service providers that they store data on their users’ internet traffic will also be dropped, according to the report.

“We know these powers are needed as technology changes and terrorists and criminals use ever more sophisticated ways to communicate,” a Government source told the Guardian. “But we need to give people the reassurance that not only are they needed, but that they are only ever used in a necessary, proportionate and accountable way. That is what this bill is all about.”

USA Freedom Act passed by Senate and signed by President Obama, limiting NSA surveillance

But campaigners have said that authorities had intentionally set up the debate so that they could drop the most outrageous parts and still passed strengthened powers. Key controversial parts of the bill will remain, such as leaving out a safeguard that requires judges to sanction any reading of messages.

“It’s a traditional Home Office dance first to ask for the most outrageous, even impractical, powers, so that the smallest so-called ‘concessions’ seem more reasonable,” Shami Chakrabarti, the director of campaign group Liberty, told the Guardian. “The frantic spinning distracts from the sleight of hand.

“Where is the judicial sign-off before our private communications can be collected, hacked and tapped? Where is the move back to targeted surveillance and away from the blanket collection of our private data?”

Some of the invasive powers that are expected to be passed into law were first introduced in the Snoopers’ Charter – a piece of legislation pursued by Theresa May but defeated in the House of Commons by the Liberal Democrats. After the election earlier this year, Ms May suggested that such powers would return.

But the Government has abandoned those plans in part because of an embarrassing defeat over tax credits earlier this week, reports the Guardian. Senior Government figures were reportedly concerned that the House of Lords would reject the surveillance powers as they did that bill, and the change comes in the wake of discussions between Ms May and David Cameron.

The climbdown comes almost exactly a year after David Cameron and the Conservative Government began a campaign apparently to end or severely weaken encryption.

 “The question we must ask is: are we prepared to have a means of communication —the internet and a number of modern methods— that we are not able to intercept?” he asked following the publication of the report into the killing of Lee Rigby. “My answer is clear: we should not accept that. We should legislate to ensure that that is the case.”

He echoed the comments at the beginning of 2015, after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo.

The Government long characterised the plan to weaken encryption as a way of ensuring that intelligence agencies could get into the communications of criminals. But internet experts pointed out that the same technology is used for a variety of legitimate functions, like keeping internet banking data safe and ensuring that messages aren’t read by people other than their intended recipients

Computer scientists have also pointed out that it is impossible to weaken encryption in such a way that only the Government can access it, since the same weaknesses can be exploited by malicious hackers. That is a view understood to be held by many of the major technology companies.

The move could partly be a response to changes in the US, where activists have encouraged the authorities to limit the powers of spies. Many have suggested that the US change of policy could spread to many of its allies, including the UK.