Home Secretary Theresa May was in combative mode during a hearing with politicians on Monday afternoon as the government's rushed through data retention and investigation powers bill (Drip) was briefly scrutinised.
May, pressed by Liberal Democrat MP Julian Huppert as to why the Tory-led coalition had insisted late last week that emergency legislation had to be passed before the summer recess, said that it was "genuinely about making sure that the existing powers remain in place."
She declined to comment on whether the new law would allow spooks to widen Britain's surveillance net and apply it to non-US undersea cable companies.
Huppert, who surprised many privacy campaigners by backing the Drip bill, said he was baffled by the government's insistence that there is an emergency requirement to bring in new legislation before MPs break for the summer.
He quizzed the Home Sec on why she hadn't decided to wait until September to put the bill through parliament, given that - according to May's claim - the UK's current data retention law remains sound. That's in spite of April's European Court of Justice ruling on the EU Data Retention Directive, which was found to be "invalid" because it interfered not only with data protection rules, but also with fundamental human rights to a private life.
"Our data retention regulations do still stand, but they were drafted in relation to the Data Retention Directive," May said.
She added that the government wanted to put the UK's position "beyond doubt."
May said: "It is important we put this in place as soon as possible before we have the possibility of legal questions in relation to the issues that are put before us."
Huppert wanted to know why amendments to the 2000 Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) were included in the bill. He asked the Home Sec to tell the home affairs committee if any overseas comms providers had ever complied with a Ripa request.
May eventually said that the government had "compliance with a number of providers".
She added: "We have consistently been of the view ... that Ripa did apply, had that extra-territoriality, this has been questioned, I think it's right to put this beyond question."
The cabinet minister appeared to be inferring that the government was keen to avoid legal action from communications providers outside the UK following the recent ECJ ruling. It's well known, following disclosures by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, that the British government's intelligence agencies tap into communications cables owned by overseas companies, in some cases without their knowledge or consent. May said that Whitehall wanted to avoid reaching a "cliff edge" on the issue.
But she failed to clarify exactly why the bill was urgent, beyond the suggestion that there was a perceived threat from foreign companies ripping the government's current regulations to shreds. ®