UK-US Treaty will force Tech Giants to Hand Over Data

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US tech companies will be mandated to hand over communications data to UK intelligence agencies under a proposed deal to help the fight against terrorism and serious crime.

Since 2015, the UK has been working with the US government, and representatives from US technology companies, on a proposed UK-US bilateral data access agreement that would allow companies in one country to comply with lawful orders for electronic communications from the other,” the UK Home Office said.

“This agreement would help law enforcement and security agencies protect the public through accessing data stored or controlled by companies in each others’ countries in support of serious crime and terrorism investigations, and would include strong safeguards and maintain rigorous privacy protections for citizens.” The Home Office said it hoped that a deal could be done by the end of this year but that the timetable would “depend on changes to the relevant US domestic legislation”.

Services including Facebook, Hotmail or Gmail are not obliged to share the contents of users’ communications with any foreign government if the data are physically stored in the US, according to the current US law, which is 30 years old and predates email and social media.

The data can only be disclosed in urgent situations that pose a “threat to life”. Technology companies are able to refuse the UK’s requests for the communications of a UK-based suspect in a criminal or terrorist investigation, leaving investigators to rely on requests through diplomatic channels that typically take up to a year to bear fruit.

Similarly, US authorities cannot compel companies such as Microsoft and Google to disclose communications data to them, if these are stored outside the US. Microsoft won a surprise legal victory in July last year when a US court ruled that it did not have to turn over emails belonging to a suspected drug trafficker to US law enforcement because the data were stored on a server in Dublin.

The US is now redrafting its law but Washington and London have also been quietly drawing up an agreement that would facilitate data-sharing between the two nations.