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UK adopts unprecedented electronic surveillance bill. Could the U.S. be next?

The United States could look to the United Kingdom as a model for expanding electronic surveillance after the European nation enacted a law Tuesday giving it unprecedented authority to gather private citizens’ data.

Nicknamed the “Snoopers’ Charter,” the Investigatory Powers Act requires communications service providers to store up to 12 months of user’s browsing history and phone data for potential review by law enforcement. The law also empowers intelligence officials to monitor residents’ communications and even hack their correspondences if the Secretary of State grants a warrant to do so.

Currently, agencies can request past communications, such as old phone bills, but the new provision overturns a ban on monitoring digital communications for an extended period of time. The Snoopers’ Charter also consolidates all U.K. surveillance under the newly created Investigatory Powers Commission, which oversees and directs all reconnaissance.

Members of the U.K. government argue the law offers more transparency and has adequate checks to prevent abuse. U.K. Home Secretary Amber Rudd called it “world-leading legislation that provides unprecedented transparency and substantial privacy protection.”

But many opponents say this is the first surveillance setup of its kind. No other European country, Canada, Australia or the United States has legal obligation to retain digital communication records for that amount of time, BBC reported.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May Photo by Adnan Abidi/Reuters

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May championed the U.K.’s Snoopers’ Charter during her tenure as Home Secretary. Photo by Adnan Abidi/Reuters

Other critics call the bill wide-reaching and unnecessarily intrusive. A petition to repeal the Snoopers’ Charter has more than 150,000 signatures.

“The bill itself is the most extreme surveillance law we’ve ever seen in terms of what it’s requiring,” said Daniel Castro, vice president of Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, D.C.

The demands the U.K. government can now make of private companies under this legal structure are more in line with repressive governments like China or Russia, said Danny O’Brien, international director at the digital privacy advocacy organization Electronic Frontier Foundation.

“Now we are getting similar demands from governments closer to home,” O’Brien said.

While the new British law does not directly impact the United States, its wake could make ripples across the Atlantic. Donald Trump’s embrace of “Brexit” rhetoric has privacy advocates worried the United States will follow in the UK’s footsteps when it comes to surveillance.

“It’s something that was unthinkable in the U.S. When the U.K. [Investigatory Powers] Act passes, it really calls into question whether that could happen here,” Castro added.

Mike Pompeo and Jeff Sessions, the two men President-elect Trump has appointed to run the CIA and Justice Department respectively, have records that favor increased surveillance.

Rep. Pompeo co-wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed earlier this year advocating the “collection of all metadata, and combining it with publicly available financial and lifestyle information into a comprehensive, searchable database.” The “collection of all metadata” is tantamount to reinstating the mass surveillance system that former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden exposed in 2013.

In the op-ed, he also lamented the barriers preventing the government from gathering phone metadata and monitoring the contents of a specific target’s communication. Congress banned those measures, which were once part of the Patriot Act.

Protesters demonstrate outside an Apple Store as they object to the US Government's attempt to put a backdoor to hack into the Apple iPhone, in Los Angeles, California on February 23, 2016. Photo  Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

Protesters demonstrate outside an Apple Store as they object to the US Government’s attempt to put a backdoor to hack into the Apple iPhone, in Los Angeles, California on February 23, 2016. A federal regulation approved on Tuesday expanded the FBI’s hacking powers. Photo Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

In 2015, Pompeo proposed a bill that would give the National Security Agency access to business records collected through the Patriot Act. That bill did not pass.

As a senator, Sessions has consistently voted for extending surveillance capabilities. He voted for extending the Patriot Act’s wiretaps, for removing warrants required to wiretap abroad and against court warrant requirements to monitor U.S.-to-foreign phone calls.

Neither Sessions nor Pompeo responded immediately to request for comment.

It’s too early to tell what the Trump administration’s stance on surveillance will be in the tug-of-war between privacy and national security until the cabinet fills out. But, Congress may already be tilting toward national security.

In April, the Supreme Court adopted changes to Rule 41 of the federal rules of criminal procedure, which allows judges to issue warrants for any computer, regardless of jurisdiction. Privacy advocates argue this move would expand the FBI’s hacking capabilities, Reuters reported. The rule went into effect Thursday, despite bipartisan efforts to extend the time Congress has to make a decision until July.

Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, one of the co-sponsors of the move to extend Congress’ deliberation time, called it “one of the biggest mistakes in surveillance policy in years.”

“[T]he vast majority of the affected computers would belong to the victims, not the perpetrators, of a cybercrime,” the senator said in a statement.