The US and UK are currently holding secret meetings with the hopes of making it easier for police and spy agencies to access emails and other electronic data held by private companies on both sides of the Atlantic, the Washington Post reports.
Design by Andrew Liszewski from a Puck magazine illustration
The agreement, which is still in very early stages of negotiation, would allow American intelligence and police agencies to request the data of Americans that may be held by British telecommunications and social networking companies, and vice versa.
The goal is for British and American intel and police agencies to have quick access to the communications of their citizens who may be engaged in planning acts of terrorism. Previously, it could take an average of 10 months for British security services to formally request data through the US Justice Department, which would then in turn request data from companies like Facebook, Amazon and Google. This new proposal would allow each country's respective agencies to request the data from the British and American companies directly.
The Washington Post has reviewed a draft of the proposal and reports that it doesn't specify what standard British police will need to meet in order to obtain data held in the US about British citizens.
From the Washington Post:
[The British] system does not require a judge to approve search and wiretap warrants for surveillance based on probable cause, as is done in the United States. Instead, the home secretary, who oversees police and internal affairs, approves the warrant if that cabinet member finds that it is "necessary" for national security or to prevent serious crime and that it is "proportionate" to the intrusion.
Once this agreement is formally hashed out, it would still need Congressional approval, but it's hard to see why the US Congress would object if it doesn't involve the surveillance of Americans inside its borders. As we know from the Obama administration's drone strikes, being a US citizen doesn't seem to grant you much in the way of due process when you're outside of the US. But you never know.
With the world getting smaller and Five Eyes vacuuming up practically everyone's metadata anyway, expect to see more agreements like this between allied countries like Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the UK. Short of a one-world government, police and the intelligence community are going to beg, borrow and steal to get the intelligence they think they need to put the baddies away.
I guess the bright side to all this is at least this agreement falls on the "beg and borrow" side of things rather than the "steal", depending on how you look at it.