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Snooper's Charter 2015: How to protect your online privacy from the Conservatives' new bill

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While some of us are extroverts who like to tell the world about our lives on social media, forums and beyond, many just want to keep themselves to themselves. But no matter who you are, there are things you just may not want others to know – be it what music you’re into, what porn you watch or what weird Benedict Cumberbatch fan fiction you devour. 

So the Conservative Party’s ‘Snooper’s Charter’ – or, to give it its new, official, Queen’s Speech-endorsed title the Investigatory Powers Bill - is a bit of a worry as the first big, post-election tech change by our new government.

The bill’s aim is to “provide the police and intelligence agencies with the tools to keep you and your family safe”. Keep your family safe. Remember that episode of The Simpsons?

Claiming that laws are for keeping our families safe is standard sweet talking for governments, as well as big corporations. There’s little that matters to us more than our families, no matter what form they take, and so to claim something will help keep them safe is sure to garner approval from many. 

What exactly will the Snooper’s Charter allow the government to do?

Your internet service provider (ISP), phone company and tech middlemen, such as Google, Apple and Facebook, will be required to keep a record of sites you visit and people you call for the past year, to be given to police and government agencies as and when required. This is likely to cost some £1.8 billion, despite us being told that we must cut crucial services elsewhere. I guess we’ve all got different priorities. But what’s the problem here, you’ve got nothing to hide, right? 
Well, the problems are many. For one, ISPs will be required to hold this data. As expensive as that is, it produces another problem: security. This could go wrong in two ways. First, it will allow employees at your ISP to see precisely what you look at. Even if it’s protected from unauthorised eyes, it’s impossible to say that every ISP would be able to keep information away from all its staff. 

Secondly, any hacker gaining access to your ISP’s records would know a great deal about you: who you bank with, where you get your clothes, how often you buy pizza, all manner of things. They’ll also have access to information about what dating sites you visit and the things you search for. 

What’s more, a study conducted in the US shows that mass metadata (the information the government wants to collect) collection isn’t effective and has helped in, at most, 1.8 per cent of cases. It is, essentially, an expensive white elephant. 

Hang on, wasn’t the Snooper’s Charter proposed before?

Yes indeed, and we first analysed the bill during the last parliament, but with the plucky Liberal Democrats part of the Coalition it wasn’t able to pass. Things, as we all know, have changed. With a Tory majority it’s now possible for the bill to be pushed through quick-smart, assuming the party’s own members don’t vote against it. 

But no one’s going to be interested in me, so I’m safe, right?

Well, according to a report by Big Brother Watch, the police have made 733,237 requests for personal metadata in the past two years – including texts, emails, phone calls and internet searches – with one fulfilled every two minutes.
With the Investigatory Powers Bill, this will only increase, and it’s fairly chilling the relative ease with which this could end up being law. Add this to the requirement that users must also prove they are 18 to look at “adult” material - however that is interpreted by law – and the government is starting to develop a tasty little profile of people and their various online habits. 

What’s the justification for all this?

Terrorism, basically. The aims of the bill, according to the Queen’s Speech, are:

  • Provide the police and intelligence agencies with the tools to keep you and
    your family safe
  • Address ongoing capability gaps that are severely degrading the ability of law
    enforcement and intelligence agencies ability to combat terrorism and other
    serious crime
  • Maintain the ability of our intelligence agencies and law enforcement to target
    the online communications of terrorists, paedophiles and other serious
  • Modernise our law in these areas and ensure it is fit for purpose
  • Provide for appropriate oversight and safeguard arrangements

Although this is quite ambiguous, and in some cases entirely meaningless, that’s fairly normal. Parliament will need to look at the actual mechanics of the bill, so what’s above is just an outline. 

The “capability gaps” are, presumably, the concerns raised by encrypted data on messaging services. Prime Minister David Cameron has mentioned before that he wasn’t a fan of obscuring our conversations and this would allow the government access to the juicy details, even if they aren’t physically keeping the content of the messages themselves. 

The next point is similar, because the government wants to be able to target communications of law breakers, which will mean having access to any messaging service that could be used to transfer files, plan terrorism or other illegal activities. That’s basically everything. 

But catching baddies is a good thing, right?

Of course it is, but here’s the problem: baddies will simply adapt their communications to shut out any chance of prying. They almost certainly already do this – it is, after all, straightforward to encrypt your data using 256-bit keys that are near-impossible to crack, even with the most powerful hardware.
What this bill does is open up the communications of normal people, and perhaps low-level criminals, under the guise of tackling terrorism. People genuinely planning a terror attack will either take steps to protect their tracks, or just, y’know, discuss things in person. 

So what can I do to protect what I send from prying eyes?

Social networks - If you’re using services like Facebook, not a lot – there’s actually very little you can do to stop anything from ending up in government hands. To prevent snooping at this level your communication has to be encrypted from your phone or computer, right the way through to the recipient, and the details of your security keys must not be known by anyone but you. If you can do all that, then your messages will remain your business and unreadable – within reason. 

Messaging - With services such as WhatsApp and Snapchat, you are only in control of what happens between your phone and the WhatsApp server. At that point, messaging services could allow the government full access to your messages or, if you’re lucky, just the relevant headers and metadata. This could include who you’re talking to, and the time for which you talked to them.

Skype should be treated with a similar lack of trust. There’s no way to know what data Microsoft is allowing the US and other governments to see, but you can be sure that any chat you have on the service could be viewed by any number of people who aren’t your intended recipient. That includes video calls, too.
Of course, you could migrate to a secure chat platform, and there are plenty which allow you to encrypt messages end-to-end (your phone to your friends’ phones). The problem there, though, is they’re not WhatsApp and your friends won’t be on them. But if you don’t mind the rolling of eyes when you suggest how good it would be to stay secure, this would be a good start. 

Email - When it comes to email, just forget about it – it was never supposed to be secure, and it isn’t. Sure, you can encrypt the contents of an email, but good luck finding many people prepared to get your public key from you and decrypt your message. For best results, treat email as if it is being read by everyone online. 

Internet - For general web use, though, things are a bit easier. A simple virtual private network (VPN) service will encrypt your information from your computer, right through to the point at which it exits the network. From there it could be examined, but it would be slightly harder for a snooper to understand its origin. 

So is that it? Is this really going to happen?

Pretty much. It was a very visible part of the Conservatives’ election pledge and its inclusion in the party’s first Queen’s Speech means they very much intend to go through with it. There is one hope, though, and that’s the House of Lords. Usually a more moderate and sensible bunch (usually), they have the ability to put a stop to this bill. So how lucky are you feeling?

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