The Investigatory Powers Bill threatens to fundamentally change what privacy means in modern Britain.
The Bill, which is incredibly close to passing in Parliament, will have a huge impact on the fundamental human rights of the British people. If passed into law it will allow security services and police to hack individual phones and computers without the knowledge of the public. The government will also have access to a bulk collection of personal data, including all websites visited by users for a year. The Bill will force messaging services such as WhatsApp and iMessage to assist in bypassing encryption, allowing messages between individuals to be read. The proposition of the Bill itself demonstrates the Government’s utter contempt for privacy and human rights.
Over the last 15 years we have witnessed the growing erosion of privacy in this country. Mandatory data retention has been introduced, along with the expansion of surveillance and signal interception. These changes have led to intelligence agencies such as GCHQ having unprecedented insight into the personal lives of ordinary Britons – as evidenced by surveillance documents released by Edward Snowden.
The Investigatory Powers Bill will be the first time since 2001 that the Government has updated its surveillance provisions. It could be argued that an update in legislation with regards to the internet is desperately needed. However, the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), which has historically worked very closely with security services, found the Bill troubling, criticising it for a lack of privacy protections.
The ISC also cautioned the government, warning it to avoid using terrorist attacks as an excuse to overrule civil liberties. The ISC, along with two other committees that reviewed the Bill, issued a total of 86 recommendations. Specifically, the ISC stated that bulk data collection and personal device hacking should be scrapped, and called for the introduction of a Privacy Protections section. They concluded that in its current form the Bill is unclear and over-reaching.
“bulk interception [is] hacking by any other name”
On the 1st March, after hearing these recommendations, the revised Bill was published. Home Secretary Theresa May defended the Bill, arguing that “We have strengthened safeguards, enhanced privacy protections and bolstered oversight arrangements”. However, the executive director of Privacy International, Dr. Gus Hosein said “It would be shameful to even consider this change cosmetic, the continued inclusion of powers for bulk interception and bulk equipment interference, hacking by any other name, leaves the right to privacy dangerously undermined and the security of our infrastructure at risk.”
His concerns were echoed in Parliament that same day: experts, organisations and 100 MPs published a letter urging the Government to take full account of the recommendations, and to stop the Bill passing through Parliament. As well as ignoring the ISC, the revised Bill cuts the current judicial oversight from three commissioners down to one: a single senior judge who will have full power.
“IT WAS LEFT TO REBELLIOUS CONSERVATIVES AND LIBERAL DEMOCRATS TO DEFEND THE HUMAN RIGHTS THAT BRITONS ENJOY TODAY.”
When the Bill got its second hearing in parliament on Tuesday, we learnt that the Labour party and the SNP have abandoned their commitment to the fundamental right to privacy, with both parties abstaining from voting rather than opposing the Bill. It was left to rebellious Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to defend the human rights that Britons enjoy today.
Despite this, the Bill passed its second reading with 281 votes in favour; just 15 against. Many Tory backbenchers were notably absent from the vote, which many have speculated was a form of protest against the Bill. The result of this vote is that we are now in the bleak position where the Bill only needs to pass in the House of Lords before being made into law.
The implications of this Bill being brought into law are as follows: all the websites you visit will be stored for a year, your phone and computer may be hacked into without your knowledge, any messages you send can be read even if sent through an encrypted service; who you are communicating with will be logged. And all of this will take place without you ever being convicted of a crime – you will not even be aware that you are being investigated.
Now, I think we can all agree that it is important to catch terrorists and would-be attackers before they can cause harm. However, many of the provisions of the Bill do not seem to have this as their primary goal: for instance, storing all websites and conversation data in bulk is incredibly costly, wasteful and unproductive for these purposes, since they are not targeted at the individuals we suspect are a threat, but instead affect everyone in Britain equally. This presents a troubling challenge to the idea of being innocent until proven guilty. The passing of this Bill will effectively mean that we are all under investigation.