New spying laws in China have drawn wide criticism from the international community, despite being largely similar to those set to be passed in the UK without much condemnation in the UK.
The new Chinese spying powers allow authorities to weaken security so that messages can be read and force companies to co-operate with surveillance. Both of those powers are also part of the Investigatory Powers Bill, which is expected to be passed into law in early 2016, on a sped-up schedule.
China’s controversial new law was passed on Sunday and requires that technology companies hand over encryption keys and other sensitive information. The country says that the powers are needed to fight against a growing threat from militants and separatists.
The UK’s Investigatory Powers Bill also requires that technology companies store sensitive information — including a requirement that internet providers hold records of browsing for a year — as well as weakening security so that intelligence agencies can gain access to communications.
Both the UK and China have claimed that the law doesn't ban encryption, which ensures that messages can't be read as they pass over networks. But each appears to undercut the technology that powers such security measures.
The international community has condemned the new Chinese powers, and President Obama has raised concerns with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Though the UK’s laws have received scathing reviews from Apple and other companies, they have not been publicly criticised by other governments.
China has already said that it took inspiration for the law from measures in the US and elsewhere.
The deputy head of the parliament’s criminal law division told reporters that China was simply doing what other Western countries had already done. "This rule accords with the actual work need of fighting terrorism and is basically the same as what other major countries in the world do," Li Shouwei told reporters.
Li said that the law would not affect the day-to-day operations of tech companies and that it would not force them to install the controversial backdoors that would weaken security so that authorities could read people’s messages.
That is the same argument made by Theresa May and other government officials about the UK’s Investigatory Powers Bill. Though a range of companies have pointed out that the law seems to allow the government to install such powers, the government maintains that it is not breaking encryption but rather offering ways of catching terrorists and cybercriminals.
As with the laws that are set to be passed in the UK, experts have worried that China’s surveillance laws will make their way across the globe.
Computer makers will “respond by building this capability into any equipment that might end up in China, even if it never does”, Cory Doctorow, special advisor to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), told The Independent last week.
“This creates a vulnerability that other entities — national security forces, police, industrial spies, voyeurs, organized crime, griefers, identity thieves — will exploit, even in countries that never passed a backdoor law.”
The UK’s law also allows for extraterritorial force, meaning that companies that operate in the UK but are based elsewhere will need to comply with the law, potentially bringing two different regimes into conflict.
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