The inevitable has happened. The Investigatory Powers Bill (IPB), dubbed Snooper’s Charter has been passed by both Houses of Parliament, and once it receives Royal Assent it will become law which is likely to be by the end of 2016. It is hard not to agree with Edward Snowden when he twitted that ‘the UK has just legislated the most extreme surveillance laws in the history of western democracy’. Without a doubt, the UK has now joined Russia and China in their extreme surveillance regimes.
The Bill was first introduced last November by then Home Secretary Theresa May with the aim of protecting the country’s national security, counter terrorist attacks, and fight against serious and organised crimes.
Quite bluntly, it legalised the powers that the security agencies and the police had been using for years in secret without any appropriate legal basis. It made legal all the mass surveillance that Snowden revealed in 2013. The Investigatory Powers Bill allows the government to spy on its citizens without any indicia for suspicious behavior; basically, everything from everyone, from your telephone records to your Kindle storage. If you denied to all your friends that you never ever read the 50 Shades of Grey – well the government will know if you lied.
Jim Killock, the executive director of Open Rights Group, in SkyNews interview, said that “the UK now has a surveillance law that is more suited to a dictatorship than a democracy. The state has unprecedented powers to monitor and analyse UK citizens’ communications regardless of whether we are suspected of any criminal activity.”
The most contentious part of the Bill is that it requires the internet providers to store all your web history for a year (Internet Connection Records) including everything from the internet companies and messenger services to postal services, which can be accessed without any warrant meaning that there is no judiciary oversight. A simple ‘sign-off’ by a ‘designated senior person’ will get the access approved. The data includes the simple ‘who, what, when, where’. Although the data does not include the exact website article you have visited as this would be defined as a ‘content’ under the law, it nevertheless is much more than just an itemised phone bill as Theresa May prefers to call it, and certainly, will reveal a lot about an individual.
The stored data will create a massive database of all the Internet Connection Records which will allow making queries using ‘request filters’. The security of such databases is questionable and can be under attacks from those wishing to gain access to the information stored. You do not have to look far away to know that these will certainly happen, TalkTalk, Vodafone, O2 and recently Three’s cyber attacks to understand that our web history is not safe. The term privacy will soon be forgotten. Imagine that there is a public figure with embarrassing web history or a history that could reveal a serious medical condition which could endanger his career or life. A celebrity that is having a mental health problem, looking for some help online, a hacker acquires his web history and in turn blackmail the celebrity. You can only imagine what consequences could follow.
The soon to be Act also fails to provide adequate protection for journalistic sources meaning that a potential whistleblower may feel under a threat of prosecution. On the other hand, if the police want to request to view journalists’ call records in order to identify their sources it has to be signed off by a judge. Yet, this protection is flawed as the judge can only disallow a warrant on the basis of the procedural rules and not the evidence of the case, meaning that he reviews the decision on the basis of necessity and proportionality of the warrant and not the facts. The Bill also forces companies to decrypt data on request, meaning that their phones are less secured.
The Bill had a period of consultancy from March 2016 and a little opposition in Parliament. The only amendment that politicians have submitted is a measure to stopped themselves being spied on, the law as currently is, requires consultation with a Prime Minister before a warrant to monitor MP’s communications is to be issued. Politicians above journalists.
It is sad, upsetting and shocking that our fundamental right to privacy is taken away so easily and without a fight. The mere existence of a regime that continuously watches and records what we do on the web is frightening and disturbing. Even though some people are not bothered with the new law as they have nothing to hide, it is simply not a solution to the problem. The capabilities of the system, software, storage will develop and soon all the stored data could be used to predict your actions, your choices, your decisions, predict your future. It is truly a scene from a Sci-Fiction movie ‘Minority Report’ or the series ‘Person of Interest’.
We can only hope that the ruling which is expected next year from the Court of Justice of the European Union will rule that some parts of the Bill are unlawful, and based on previous rulings such as the Digital Rights Ireland, or Schrems, it is likely that the CJEU will not allow for the blank mass surveillance. Or let’s hope it won’t.
“A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They will never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves, an unrecorded, unanalyzed thought. And that is a problem because privacy matters. Privacy is what allows us to determine who we are and who we want to be. ” – Edward Snowden