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United Kingdom Passes ‘Snooper’s Charter,’ Giving Unprecedented Surveillance Power to Agencies

Wednesday, November 30, 2016 15:18
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  The law grants “the police, security services and official agencies unprecedented access” to residents’ web browsing histories. (CGP Grey / CC 2.0)

On Tuesday, the United Kingdom instated the Investigatory Powers Act 2016, a piece of legislation hailed by whistleblower Edward Snowden as “the most extreme surveillance in the history of western democracy.”

The law, informally known as the “Snooper’s Charter,” spent over a year in Parliament before it was passed. The Guardian reported:

The new surveillance law requires web and phone companies to store everyone’s web browsing histories for 12 months and give the police, security services and official agencies unprecedented access to the data.

It also provides the security services and police with new powers to hack into computers and phones and to collect communications data in bulk. The law requires judges to sign off police requests to view journalists’ call and web records, but the measure has been described as “a death sentence for investigative journalism” in the UK.

More than 140,000 people have signed a petition opposing the surveillance law, but yesterday’s action was the final step for the bill to become official.

CNET explained some details of the new law, which will affect U.K. residents:

ISPs and mobile phone providers will keep a record of every website visit of anyone using a British network for up to a year. That include[s] sites visited through mobile browsers and phone apps (like Facebook)—but not individual web pages. So there would be a record of you visiting cnet.com, for example, but not of any news articles you read or videos you watched.

The data will be stored by the network that collected it, but police and many government departments will be able to use a central search tool to find and access those records. The list of who will be able to see your internet history includes nearly 50 organizations.

Searches of that data will be conducted at the discretion of the police and will be overseen by a specially trained supervising officer only. There will be no judicial oversight.

The only way to avoid your internet history being stored is to use a proxy or virtual private network (VPN).

Supporters of the legislation argue that it will make the U.K. safer and help prevent terrorist attacks. The bill “will underpin the work of law enforcement and the security and intelligence agencies for years to come,” British Prime Minister Theresa May said.

And although the bill eventually gained support from the opposition Labour Party, many organizations took a stance against it.

Jim Killock, executive director of the privacy and free speech organization Open Rights Group, stated that the new law “is one of the most extreme surveillance laws ever passed in a democracy.”

“Its impact will be felt beyond the UK as other countries, including authoritarian regimes with poor human rights records, will use this law to justify their own intrusive surveillance regimes,” Killock continued. “Theresa May has finally got her snoopers’ charter and democracy in the UK is the worse for it.”

Tech companies including Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Twitter issued a group statement late last year. “To the extent this could involve the introduction of risks or vulnerabilities into products or services, it would be a very dangerous precedent to set, and we would urge your Government to reconsider,” the tech giants concluded.

“Critics have drawn links between Snowden’s 2013 revelations and the IP bill, as the law seeks to legitimize many of the surveillance activities he made public,” the CNET report added. “But the origins of the legislation predate Snowden.”

“It goes farther than any autocracies,” Snowden tweeted about the IP bill last week.

Wired UK noted that, according to the U.K. Home Office, “some of the provisions in the act will require extensive testing and will not be in place for some time,” but that “the Government will commence” portions of the bill by December 31.

—Posted by Emma Niles

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