Following on from our news article last week about the proposed Snoopers’ charter, the UK parliament surprised critics this week by introducing a wide-reaching and intrusive surveillance bill that goes far beyond the remit of the initial proposal.
The newly titled Investigatory Powers Bill will enable the government to monitor every UK citizen’s social media activities and online browsing behavior, while extending the capabilities of intelligence agencies for bulk collection of user data.
Renate Samson from the civil liberties group, Big Brother Watch, expressed suspicion about the recent change to the bill’s name and said that only time would reveal the true extent of the legislation. She also said that at present there was no substantial evidence to support the introduction of such widespread data collection.
Jim Killock from the Open Rights Group, an organization that scrutinizes government policy, believes that the legislation sends a clear message to UK citizens that nationwide spying is acceptable, regardless of whether or not citizens have committed crimes.
Killock said that bulk collection of data was a large and unnecessary expense that infringed upon the civil liberties of citizens. He also said that the new legislation would usher in attacks on encryption, which at present is one of the key lines of defense against open access to private user information.
When Edward Snowden revealed crucial information about the state of surveillance in the US in 2013, it also came out that the UK had its own bulk collection surveillance program. It was revealed that the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), located in the now iconic doughnut-shaped building in Cheltenham, were collecting huge amounts of data from British citizens illegally. Snowden disclosed information specifically about the Tempora and Prism programs, which were collecting online browsing and phone call data. New documents revealed by Snowden to the German newspaper Die Spiegel earlier this year showed how GCHQ tracked iPhone users.
What’s clear about this recent legislation is that its scope is just as vast as GCHQ’s bulk collection programs and those operated by the NSA. Some critics have suggested that the extension of surveillance powers is a direct reaction to the Snowden revelations. On the surface, the only difference seems to be that the government has now legalized spying. The government has said that the extension of surveillance powers are needed to “modernise the law” in relation to tracking new digital communications. A spokesperson from the Home Office said that there was an urgent need to “better equip law enforcement and intelligence agencies to meet their key operational requirements, and address the gap in these agencies’ ability to build intelligence and evidence where subjects of interest, suspects and vulnerable people have communicated online.”
The government has reassured critics and civil rights groups that they will provide adequate oversight and strong safeguards to protect privacy, though details of these procedures have been scant. Privacy issues have been raised by David Anderson QC, the official reviewer of counter-terrorism legislation, whereby he assessed the bulk surveillance powers used by the police and security services under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. Anderson is expected to raise uncomfortable questions about the challenges involved in data collection for the latest legislation, as well as the transparency of the legislation, and the proposed oversight methods and safeguards. Anderson delivered his report to parliament on 6 May just before the general election, though his major report will be published later this week. See Anderson’s blog for more information.
It’s likely that the legislation will follow the advice of the UK’s intelligence and security committee (ISC). In March, the ISC suggested that the existing surveillance framework in the UK should be replaced by a single piece of legislation from within parliament. In their report, ISC argued that new legislation should be brought in to monitor new technologies, and that certain data should be recategorized as “communications data plus”. This refers to data that discloses intimate details about an individual’s habits, preferences, and lifestyle. ISC said that “such data is more intrusive and therefore should attract greater safeguards.”
However, to critics it seems that the vast majority of user data fits this category, since most of our online activities reveal our most personal and private behavior. For the ISC to flag these particular aspects of data suggests in fact that the government are putting more effort into protecting data from the users they intend to extract it from. If this is the case, it’s clear that the government values the more private aspects of online user behavior, but only from a commercial perspective.
Aside from the Investigatory Powers Bill, four other Home Office bills were introduced this week. These include the extremism bill, which seeks to dissolve extremist content online, though many are concerned that the bill will corrode free speech. Another bill is the immigration bill, which intends to criminalize immigrants working in the UK without visas. The psycho-active substances bill will ban all legal highs, while the policing and criminal justice bill will introduce mental health reforms and sanctions for healthcare professionals.