Is the government coming for your browser history?

The Investigative Power Act creates an obligation for communication service providers in the United Kingdom to record the website history of all their clients. Numerous governmental bodies can access that information if they ask for it. All this data from every internet user will be stored for 12 months. After that, it has to be deleted. Mara Păun, researcher at Tilburg University, is skeptical: “I really hope that they will truly delete it.”

The companies will not collect the URLs. For example: if you go to and click on this article, according to this law they do not collect that data. The only thing that will be stored is the fact that you were on this website. Păun: “Snowden revealed that governments and agencies were already doing what is now legal because of this bill.” She thinks this law will not prevent misuses of the personal information. “I think this may get out of hand.”

“We just collect the haystack and then we try to find the needle.”

The Investigative Power Act is a revival of the Data Retention Directive. In April 2014 the Court of Justice of the European Union declared that particular directive invalid, but the national implementations remained. This Data Retention Directive had a sunset clause, which stated that it would cease to exist in 2017. Păun: “That is how the Investigative Power Act was born. They needed something new.” The researcher thinks there is now a momentum for a bill like this: “It is a very good moment for the government to revive the Data Retention act, with the increasing terrorist threats. Because people are scared.”


Before these kind of laws existed you first had to have some kind of suspicion to spy on people. Suspect or not, everyone is spied on now. Păun states that most powers in the new law are more or less the same as in the old one. What is new in this particular law is the tracking of the domains of the websites you visit. That was not in the Data Retention Directive. “To gain access to that data you don’t need a warrant. You need to make an application. But we don’t know how the whole review progress of those applications will work.”

The government and media are exempt from this law. Păun thinks that’s a good thing: “Immunity is very important for politicians. It is there to protect them from being afraid to do their job when secrecy must be involved.  On the other hand, it is also an issue of government trust’’ According to Păun it is the same for the media: “The media is the watchdog of society. It is important that they can do their work freely too.”


The data collection is done by the communication service providers. Păun: “So the agencies do not collect everything.’’ The data is stored somewhere else and if they want to have access to it they can ask for it. “The providers are responsible for protecting the personal information they gather. If one of those companies get hacked, the hackers would have their hands on a lot of private information. It has to be secure.’’ The security of the data is also protected by European Law.

The benefits

“It’s not all wrong. We just don’t know if the risks outweigh the benefits yet. How do you know if you really prevented an attack? We don’t know if it is effective.” Păun: “At the very least, now we know that we are being spied on. It is as transparent as it can get.” The law went through a very democratic process. “It had about a thousand amendments and it passed pretty easily.”

“The people who don’t want to get tracked, will not get tracked when they take the right precautions.”

Păun thinks people will change their behavior when they know they are always being watched. “A lot of innocent people who are not planning anything are affected by this as well. That will draw them to installing more VPNs  and go through more proxies to protect their privacy.” You can assume that people who they want to find and catch with this law probably are already using a VPN and/or proxy. And probably much more complicated applications to stay ahead of the investigators. “The people who do not want to get tracked, will not get tracked when they take the right precautions.” But according to Păun there is also a group that can be found using these kind of methods: “There are a lot of radical movements. Those who are being recruited by them mostly start at the usual social media. That is something this law can help with.” It may be possible to find people who are radicalizing and label them before they even know what they have gotten themselves into.


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