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Snooper's charter - does investigatory power corrupt?

James Watkins - Law on the Web

  1. 17 July 2015
  2. Miscellaneous
  3. 0 comments
Malevolent eye

With the Conservative party now in control of the government, they now have more freedom to push through legislation which had been kyboshed by their former coalition partners.

One such piece of legislation is the Investigatory Powers Bill, a bill which would give UK authorities unprecedented access to the online communications of its citizens, including their emails and other online communications.

Where did the bill come from?

This Investigatory Powers Bill is a replacement for the much-maligned Communications Data Bill, which was disparagingly dubbed the “snooper’s charter”.

This was itself a successor to the Interception Modernisation Programme, introduced back when the Conservatives were still in opposition (and which was, amusingly, heavily criticised by them).

The new snooper’s charter seems set to carry on the legacy of the Communications Data Bill – albeit with even further-reaching powers.

What powers will the bill give them?

One of the most controversial proposals would see an outright ban on encrypted communications, which prevents them from accessed by an unauthorised party.

This ban would affect messaging services such as WhatsApp, iMessage, and Snapchat, all of which encrypt their messages – unless the services were changed to conform, they would effectively be banned.

Another measure would require internet service providers to keep a record of all of their users’ browsing history for a year, and allow security services and the police access to it.

It emerged last month that the government had restricted access to details of the legislation, leading to accusations that they are trying to keep the particulars of the bill secret while pushing it through Parliament.

Why do authorities want the powers?

PM David Cameron and Home Secretary Theresa May maintain that the new powers are essential for protecting the UK from terrorism, particularly in the wake of the shooting in Tunisia two weeks ago.

Shortly after his re-election in May, David Cameron stated his belief that simply obeying the law was not enough to avoid suspicion from authorities.

“For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens ‘as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone’,” he said. “It’s often meant we have stood neutral between different values. And that’s helped foster a narrative of extremism and grievance.”

In another speech, he affirmed his intention to deny terrorists any sort of safe space to communicate by making it impossible for Britons to have any sort of privacy online.

“In our country, do we want to allow a means of communication between people which we cannot read?” he asked. “My answer to that question is no, we must not.”

The PM has been careful to champion his commitment to democracy and other nebulous “British values” when expressing his desire to curtail the privacy of the British people.

The Labour party has also expressed their support for increased surveillance, with the SNP, the Lib Dems, and the Greens being the only notable parties voicing opposition.

Appetite for reform

Criticism has dogged the snooper’s charter through its different forms, to the point that the government has been accused of being “out of step with public opinion”.

Privacy campaigners have been particularly vocal, with Jim Killock from the Open Rights Group (ORG) warning that the right to privacy could become “meaningless” if the government’s intentions are realised.

“The snooper’s charter is discredited, intrusive and treats us all as suspects,” he said. “We hope that MPs from all parties, who care about civil liberties, will oppose any further attempt to reintroduce this fundamental threat to our freedoms.”

These thoughts were echoed by Jo Glanville from English PEN. “If you undermine privacy, you undermine freedom of expression, as people hold back on exchanging ideas online,” she said. “Unless we get a new law in the next parliament that pushes back against the mass surveillance programmes we have now, press freedom and free speech will be undermined still further.”

Experts in cyber security have also expressed their alarm. Professor Mike Jackson accused the government of “[wanting] to treat everyone as a suspect and make us pay for the privilege”.

Official reviews of the powers have not condemned the snooper’s charter, but have called for reform.

Reviews of the powers, including one published today by the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi), have called for the judiciary to have more of a role in authorising surveillance.

A report published last month said that a new judicial commissioner should be appointed to authorise surveillance warrants, taking the power out of the hands of home or foreign secretaries.

However, the government appears unlikely to accept this proposal, preferring ministers over judges to handle such matters.

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