The address of a website often contains far more detail than simply the name of the company being visited. A record of browsing history would necessarily contain all internet searches made using websites including Google, Bing and DuckDuckGo, since the address for the search results page contains the search terms within it.
Any requirement that firms retain browsing histories for a year is likely to be presented with Home Office assurances that it will be carefully controlled by additional safeguards preventing mass surveillance.
Internet service providers have warned that any new powers introduced by the government to allow broader surveillance of web browsing behavior must come with adequate oversight to protect civil liberties.
The Internet Service Providers’ Association (ISPA) said it had sent a checklist of principles to MPs that it believes any new legislation must adhere to.
The section on transparency and oversight reads: “We encourage parliamentarians to be wary of arguments that the investigatory powers bill will merely update existing powers and fill a gap in data availability.”
Andrew Kernahan, ISPA spokesman, said: “Once the bill is published we will be going through it with a fine-toothed comb. What we do know is that internet connection records that the government wanted was included in the draft communications data bill that was rejected by parliament.”
In September Andrew Parker, director-general of MI5, took the unprecedented step of giving a live broadcast interview with BBC Radio 4’s Today program, in which he called for the cooperation of the companies who run and provide services over the internet to help tackle the use of encrypted communications by terrorists.
Powers to view the web browsing history of criminal suspects or missing people are likely to feature in the government’s surveillance legislation published next week.
The investigatory powers bill is expected to reintroduce a requirement that telecommunication firms retain records of sites accessed by their users, known as weblogs, for a 12-month period – a key element of the “snooper’s charter” that was blocked by Liberal Democrats in the last parliament.
Lobbying by senior police officers from the National Police Chiefs’ Council for mandatory retention of internet connection records comes ahead of the draft bill being published.
Civil liberty groups and privacy campaigners, however, have responded with alarm at the prospect of a key feature of the snooper’s charter being reintroduced.
Rachel Robinson, policy officer for Liberty, said: It defies belief that the government continues to seek powers so extraordinarily intrusive that none of our major intelligence allies think them acceptable to use on their people.
Anderson has not been enthusiastic about such an enhancement of search powers. No other EU or Commonwealth country requires the blanket retention of weblogs, he has pointed out; the practice was recently prohibited by law in Australia.
Anderson has commented that “a detailed operational case” needs to be made out for retaining weblogs along with “a rigorous assessment” of the “lawfulness, likely effectiveness, intrusiveness and cost” involved.
Weblogs record which web addresses users have visited, though they do not keep track of what was viewed on any particular site.