ORG’s Submission to the House of Commons Public Bill Committee Investigatory Powers (Amendment) Act 2024

ORG’s Submission to the House of Commons Public Bill Committee


1. Executive Summary

· Open Rights Group, the UK’s largest grassroots digital rights organisation, is submitting evidence about its human rights concerns relating to the IPA Bill.

· The requirement that operators must notify the Secretary of State before making security changes to their products raises serious privacy, security and free expression concerns.

· This new requirement would allow the UK to prevent secure services from launching in the country without clear independent oversight measures in place.

· Provisions expanding access to Internet Connection Records are not compatible with Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR).

· ORG recommends the following:

◦ Remove provisions that allow the government to prevent companies from adding or improving security features;

◦ Notify those who are involved in data surveillance once there is no longer a need for operational secrecy; and

◦ Ensure any new powers are overseen by an independent, impartial body to ensure proportionality and necessity of decision-making.

2. Introduction

Open Rights Group (ORG) is the UK’s largest digital rights campaigning organisation, working to protect people’s right to privacy and free speech online. We have over 40,000 supporters across the UK and active member chapters in ten cities. Our work includes policy research and analysis, legal challenges, and public campaigning, all in the defence and promotion of digital rights. 

ORG has been following the UK government’s proposed changes to the Investigatory Power Act since their inception. In July 2023, we wrote a thorough response to the Home Office’s consultation on the amendments. We also made a submission of evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights. We are submitting evidence to the Public Bill Committee because we continue to have serious concerns about the impact of the proposals on privacy, security, and free expression.

3. Evidence

A. User security and rights can be weakened in the name of disproportionate surveillance

The introduction of a notification requirement for operators to inform the Secretary of State if they propose to make changes to their products or services that would negatively impact existing lawful access capabilities raises serious privacy, security, and free expression concerns.

The objective of this notification requirement appears designed to impose a “freeze” on changes to the service while consultations are taking place. The intention appears to stop user security improvements from being rolled out.

While this objective may appear reasonable, it would allow the Secretary of State to prevent secure services from launching in the UK, even where they are deployed elsewhere. This provision would allow the Secretary of State and the Home Office to place itself in a position of power over the provider as soon as it hears about updates that might make data less accessible than it is currently. This situation would take place without reference to an independent authority to assess the rationale or proportionality. Such a move might not be proportionate, for instance, if the security technology had already been introduced safely and with demonstrable benefits to users in other parts of the world.

Open Rights Group is concerned these powers could deny people access to technological developments, upon which their rights to free expression and privacy rely. For example, major tech providers such as Apple have stated that they would pull certain services from the UK rather than compromise their security if this power was used to prevent them from rolling out security updates. [1]

Our main concerns in the proposed revisions relate to weakened privacy and expanded government surveillance. Under the new proposals, the UK government could prevent a communications services provider from fixing software vulnerabilities through essential security updates [2] or applying advanced protections such as end-to-end encryption to their services at a global level. Requiring prior approval before rolling out a security patch is not a proportionate response.

B. Secure communication methods are being undermined

ORG is also concerned that the changes are meant to reduce the possibility of the introduction of encryption to protect user data from unwanted access.

The Home Office appears to regard encryption, especially “end-to-end encryption” (E2EE), where a service provider is unable to see the contents of communications they facilitate, as a threat to its capabilities and, by extension, to national security. It appears to be seeking to extend its powers to prevent E2EE from being used at scale, despite its benefits to users and vendors.

E2EE is a significant protection for the right to privacy against everyday criminality, abuse and intrusion. Encrypted messaging apps are routinely used by politicians, doctors, business leaders, lawyers, and others who need to exchange large amounts of personal data securely while complying with UK data protection legislation, and protecting themselves from acts of cybercrime.

Journalists rely on E2EE and access to secure global technologies to communicate with their sources and exercise freedom of expression rights. E2EE protects vendors from being a vector for potentially massive data loss.

British Businesses rely on E2EE to protect against acts of corporate espionage, and to provide secure communication methods to conduct international business in a secure and private environment. Preventing tech companies from rolling out security improvements or updates without prior authorization could put British companies and industry at a disadvantage compared to countries that allow the free use of communication technology. This measure would inhibit rather than promote ambitions for the UK to become a world-leader in the tech industry.

In addition, the proposed measures in the Investigatory Powers (Amendment) Bill are poised to profoundly impact political dissidents and opposition figures residing in the UK. Refugees, political exiles, and human rights advocates who have sought refuge within the UK deserve the assurance of digital safety and security.

LGBTQ+ individuals from refugee and migrant backgrounds who have fled to the UK heavily rely on digital tools to maintain connections with their families, friends, and social networks. These individuals will face heightened vulnerabilities to hacking and privacy breaches if the proposed changes are implemented.

Undermining security updates and patches is especially concerning for exiled activists who have been compelled to leave their home countries and now reside in the UK. These individuals may become susceptible to digital transnational repression attacks from their authoritarian regimes. Such attacks, coupled with a sense of deprivation of digital safety and security, will inevitably lead to severe consequences on their freedom of expression, potentially resulting in silencing their voices.

The exiled diaspora from countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Hong Kong has historically faced harassment and digital threats from their authoritarian regimes, even beyond their national borders. The proposed measures in the Bill could significantly exacerbate this situation, providing authoritarian governments with unprecedented opportunities to control, silence, and punish dissent across borders. [3]

Forensic Architecture, a London-based research agency, has documented 326 incidents of digital transnational repression between 2019 and 2021. [4] This number is likely to rise, especially in cases where security updates for technology are undermined. Numerous refugees and diaspora from Hong Kong, along with prominent activists, have expressed feelings of insecurity following online threats and harassment in the UK from their government. [5]

Additionally, three UK-based civil society leaders and human rights activists have reported their mobile devices being infiltrated with spyware by their regimes. [6] These examples underscore the urgent need to reconsider the potential ramifications of the proposed amendments and their impact on the safety and security of those who seek refuge and advocate for justice within the UK.

Recently, in the landmark ruling Podchasov v. Russia , the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled that the weakening of encryption “can lead to general and indiscriminate surveillance of the communications of  all  users and violates the human right to privacy.” [7] The ruling stemmed from an incident in 2017, when the Russian government required “internet communication” providers to store all communication data and content for specific durations and to supply law enforcement authorities with users’ data and communication content as well as all relevant decryption tools. Telegram opposed the order, and as a result, Russian courts fined the company and ruled that the app should be blocked within the country. A Russian citizen then brought the issue to the ECtHR, arguing that the forced decryption of user communications would infringe on the right to private life under Article 8 ECHR. The court agreed, finding that encryption is important for protection the right to private life and other fundamental rights like freedom of expression. The judgment also noted that encryption acts as a shied against abuse and that there are alternative methods to decryption.

While the government may have particular reasons to seek access to data and systems in certain limited circumstances, it should neither assume that all data should be easily accessible nor seek legal regimes to ensure that data is kept easily accessible.

We reiterate that encryption does not prevent lawful access per se. It may require law enforcement to access a device covertly or to seize it and demand passwords; however, these approaches are likely to be more proportionate than simply preventing security measures from evolving for the population at large. 

C. Impacts of the bill on journalists, journalistic sources, and journalistic material

Information Security is essential for journalists who need to protect their work and sources. [8] Any attempts to delay or halt security updates or improvements to software could have an adverse impact on journalists by making them more susceptible to attacks from hostile actors or foreign states, as we saw occur with the Pegasus scandal. [9]

This could have particular impact on journalists in the UK, who could find their communications with sources restricted if tech providers were prevented from deploying software already adopted by journalistic colleagues, and sources in other countries.

D. Data surveillance is widely expanded without proper safeguards

Provisions expanding access to Internet Connection Records are not compatible with Artice 8 of the ECHR. Our own legal challenge at the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), as a party to a case brought by former MP Tom Watson, [10] showed that the court understood the sensitivity of this data. We are particularly concerned that Clause 14 expands the use of Internet Connection Records, essentially for pre-crime target detection, or “network analysis”. There is considerable scope for fishing expeditions, targeting of people for associations, and other practices which are neither wise nor proportionate.

The appropriate safeguard with most data surveillance is to notify those involved where it is safe to do so. The UK government was asked for this change in the Watson case, but it was not implemented. Such a change would allow people who had been surveilled to challenge the abuse of their privacy. Without the knowledge that surveillance has taken place, anticipating the need to challenge is extremely hard. Notification is an evolving requirement but an obvious one where capabilities inevitably grow with technology.

4. Recommendations

· Remove provisions that allow the government to prevent companies from adding or improving security features . Instead of jeopardizing the security, free expression and privacy of the population at large, the Home Office should instead seek to use more proportionate investigative methods that do not infringe upon people’s human rights. 

· Notify those who are involved in data surveillance once there is no longer an operational need for secrecy. This safeguard would be the strongest and most effective option to ensure data surveillance is compatible with Article 8 ECHR.

· Ensure any new powers are overseen by an independent, impartial body to ensure proportionality and necessity of decision-making  

March 2024

[1] Apple slams UK surveillance-bill proposals

[2] Changes to UK Surveillance Regime May Violate International Law

[3] The Digital Transnational Repression Toolkit, and Its Silencing Effects –


[4] Digital repression across borders is on the rise –

[5] ‘We don’t feel safe here’: Hongkongers in UK fear long reach of Chinese government-

[6] Bindmans launches legal action in the United Kingdom on misuse of Pegasus spyware-

[7] European Court of Human Rights Confirms: Weakening Encryption Violates Fundamental Rights-

[8] Why journalism needs information security

[9] Pegasus scandal: Are we all becoming unknowing spies?


[10] Tele2 Sverige AB v Post- och telestyrelsen and Secretary of State for the Home Department v Tom Watson and Others.