An agreement has been signed by the UK and US that allows law enforcement officials to demand electronic evidence from tech companies for the use in criminal investigations.
By signing this agreement, both the UK and US authorities will be able to rapidly speed up the process of investigations by removing legal barriers across countries. It allows authorities to obtain quicker access to sensitive data related to crimes including child sexual abuse, cybercrime and terrorism.
When law enforcement officials begin to build a case, they often require access to online data and activity such as messages, emails, website history and so on. However, if this data is held by tech companies in another country, obtaining this information can be very difficult and time consuming. Usually, authorities would have to go to court to gain access to these documents, which can vastly slow down important investigations.
The US Attorney General William Barr outlined the importance of this agreement: “Only by addressing the problem of timely access to electronic evidence of crime committed in one country that is stored in another, can we hope to keep pace with 21st Century threats.”
Home Secretary, Priti Patel added: “This historic agreement will dramatically speed up investigations, allowing our law enforcement agencies to protect the public. This is just one example of the enduring security partnership we have with the US and I look forward to continuing to work with them and global partners to tackle these heinous crimes.”
This agreement is the first to be sanctioned under the contentious CLOUD Act, or Clarifying Lawful Overseas Use of Data Act, which was passed by Congress in 2018. The CLOUD Act was brought in to update the regulations for criminal investigators who require access to data such as documents, emails and other online communications. This act also permits the US to sign agreements that allow data to be sent from US servers to criminal investigators in different countries with limited legal barriers and specific case request reviews.
The CLOUD Act was brought in to replace a process called MLAT, or a mutual legal assistance treaty. This data sharing process required law enforcement officials to obtain authorisation from court before they could approach tech companies based in different countries. This multi-stage process would often take years to complete.
However, the introduction of this new agreement has led to some groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the ACLU criticizing the update. They have argued that this pact allows law enforcement officials to sidestep constitutional protections against unreasonable searches. These groups also contented that this change could lead to the US sending personal data to officials in countries that are known for abusing citizen human rights.