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How the UK Passed the Most Invasive Surveillance Law in Democratic History

Tuesday, November 29, 2016 6:20
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You might not have noticed thanks to world events, but the UK parliament recently approved the government’s so-called Snooper’s Charter and it will soon become law. This nickname for the Investigatory Powers Bill is well earned. It represents a new level and nature of surveillance that goes beyond anything previously set out in law in a democratic society. It is not a modernisation of existing law, but something qualitatively different, something that intrudes upon every UK citizen’s life in a way that would even a decade ago have been inconceivable.

The bill requires internet and telecoms companies to keep records of every website or app we use and all our phone calls and messages for 12 months. It leaves us in the unenviable position of leading the world in the legalisation of surveillance. And it will likely be used by more authoritarian regimes around the globe as evidence that mass surveillance, online hacking and encryption backdoors are perfectly fine.

Because of the way we now use the internet for almost every element of our lives, this is not like a few carefully chosen wiretaps on suspects. It’s granting the authorities the capacity to spy on pretty much everything done by pretty much everyone. And yet we have let this law pass with very few headlines and barely a breath of resistance from our politicians.

There are still some legal avenues to prevent it from coming into effect, most directly through the European Court of Justice (while the UK is still in the EU) and the European Court of Human Rights (which is separate from the EU). But more likely to be our saving graces are the inherent problems with implementing this poorly conceived legislation and the constantly developing technology that can potentially by-pass the law.

A WELL SCRUTINISED BILL?

The Home Office may well say that it has been one of the most highly scrutinised and analysed bills in recent history. And on the face of it, they would be right. The UK’s surveillance activities have been the subject of a long series of reviews by a wide range of bodies. What the Home Office won’t say is that they have responded to these various reviews with a mixture of sidestepping, ignoring, refusing and paying lip-service to their recommendations.

For example, the Intelligence and Security Committee’s recommendation that “privacy protections should form the backbone of the draft legislation, around which the exceptional powers are then built” was responded to by changing one title from “General Protections” to “General Privacy Protections”.

The bill itself remains substantially identical to the one that was initially proposed and was highly criticised by many of the reviews. There are limits built in – such as the need for a judge and the home secretary to sign off warrants to intercept communication – but whether they will be more than a rubber stamp is questionable and will need to be carefully watched.

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