The Snoopers’ Charter

The investigatory powers tribunal has ruled that MI5, MI6 and GCHQ had for seventeen years, up to and including 2015, been secretly and illegally collecting huge volumes of confidential data of millions of British citizens without adequate safeguards. But, they were caught red-handed, and the practice has now been forcibly ended, right? Wrong. They were caught, but they wanted to keep spying. It just had to be made legal.

In November, the British government finally approved a draconian bill that diminishes the most basic human right to privacy. The Investigatory Powers Act, or “Snoopers’ Charter”, provides unprecedented access to the personal data, including internet browsing history and communications data from mobile phones and emails, of every British citizen to over 40 government authorities  - without even the need for a warrant.

The most perplexing aspect of this whole ordeal, however, is the public apathy surrounding this legislation. The right to privacy is so fundamental that most people understand it intuitively. We know that it’s wrong to read someone’s diary or to eavesdrop on a sensitive conversation, and it can be a criminal offence to open another person’s mail. Why then, have we grown so apathetic as to allow the indiscriminate surveillance of all communications? The zeitgeist, of course, is that, in this incessant war on terror, “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear”. Yet, while it is reassuring to be reminded that most of the people around us are honest, law abiding folk, the idea that only those involved in dark, nefarious schemes should place any intrinsic value in their privacy is toxic, and it plays into the hands of the most authoritarian political interests.

And on that note, I should add that this is not about seizing an opportunity to rail against the Conservatives. Labour, too, has backed this bill in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, with its representatives justifying their position by citing considerable concessions secured by their party to reduce the impingement of the bill upon civil liberties. It is difficult, however, to ascertain the exact details of these concessions, principally because these negotiations were conducted, for the most part, in private exchanges between Home Office and shadow ministers. One indication of the likely pitiful concessions secured by Labour in those exchanges can be seen in the overwhelming rejection in the House of Commons of the following modest amendments to the bill:

Clause 1: gives Investigatory Powers commissioner power to notify an individual of an interception warrant of the existence of the warrant after it has fallen. (64 ayes; 278 noes: a majority of 214.)

Just 64 of 342 MPs would allow for you to be informed that a warrant had been issued for the release of your private data – even after the information had already been seized.

Amendment 267: seeks to narrow the scope of “thematic” warrants by defining a premises or subject matter for the warrant. (67 ayes; 271 noes: a majority of 204.)

271 of 338 MPs rejected calls for a specific target for certain warrants, such as emails only, or communications relating to terrorism only, allowing the seizure of all personal data regardless of the offence.

Amendment 312: requires “reasonable suspicion of serious crime” before a warrant for interception is approved. (66 ayes; 272 noes: a majority of 206.)

272 of 338 MPs would allow your private data to be released to the authorities even without reasonable suspicion of a serious crime.

Amendment 465: to establish an Investigatory Powers commission. (64 ayes; 281 noes: a majority of 217.)

281 of 345 MPs trust the intelligence agencies, which had already been spying on British citizens illegally for 17 years, to utilise these new powers legally and without a regulator.

Amendment 482: protect whistle-blowers and those making unsolicited disclosures from criminal prosecutions. (67 ayes; 281 noes: a majority of 214.)

Just 67 of 348 MPs would seek to protect the likes of Edward Snowden from imprisonment for exposing the illegal collection by government of masses of citizens’ private communications data.

In the current political climate, it is widely argued that security forces need these additional powers in order to keep the public safe from terror. In reality, this argument is a red herring. As intelligence officers the superiors of Edward Snowden have admitted, not only do the forces who deal with serious crimes already have the necessary powers, but such mass surveillance is still yet to expose a single terrorist plot. Indeed, an analysis of 225 terrorism cases in the United States since 9/11 concluded that the powers of mass surveillance granted to the NSA by the Patriot Act, including the bulk collection of phone records, have had “no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism.”

Ramping up internet surveillance, then, will likely have little effect in preventing serious crime, but it may have a harmful social impact on law abiding citizens. It is important to have a safe and private sphere in which to communicate, and process information, but to do so is impossible when much of our private behaviour is directly accessible to thousands of government employees. Whistleblower Edward Snowden has labelled the Snoopers’ Charter as “the most extreme surveillance in the history of western democracy” which “goes farther than many autocracies”. Furthermore, since recent cyberattacks have proven that even tech giants and governments are routinely susceptible to malicious hackers and security leaks, there is no reassurance that the sensitive data of law-abiding citizens will not, at some point in future, be stolen and leaked en masse.

Inevitable information leaks aside, mass surveillance is also likely to restrict user behaviour, since people sense they are being monitored. While this may lead to a reduction in internet crime, recent studies have shown that when people believe they are being monitored online, their behaviour becomes more meek and conforming, and less likely to seek information on potentially controversial topics, including search terms like “abortion”, “alcoholics anonymous”, “coming out”, “shrink”, and “online dating”.

And herein lies the kicker. Which group in British society is to be made exempt from these invasions of personal privacy? Politicians, of course. Those shining beacons of moral purity utterly free of the public scandal and private crime reserved for the plebs.

Critics have also raised concerns that these new powers could be used to monitor those suspected of even the most minor crimes. A Freedom of Information request revealed that 186 local councils have already abused the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to perform 55,000 days of public surveillance, using secret listening devices, cameras and private detectives to monitor dog fouling, fly-tipping, and the feeding of pigeons.

Yet, despite these absurdities, even the most ardent supporter of the Investigatory Powers Act could not fail to be bamboozled by the inclusion of the Gambling Commission and Food Standards Agency among the government organisations able to delve into your private text messages, email conversations and web browsing history. My suggestion would be that the inclusion of these agencies within the remit of the Investigatory Powers Act, propagated as a means by which to prevent terrorist plots, is but the first in a series of further efforts to impose draconian restrictions upon our civil liberties.

It may have seemed like a reprieve that the European Court of Justice ruled this “general and indiscriminate retention” of electronic communications by governments as illegal, but the unfortunate timing of Brexit means that there is little chance that this ruling will have any effect. The protection of the human rights of every individual – including the right to privacy – should be of utmost important to all of us, because the human rights we enjoy today are the culmination of long and often bloody struggles by countless people over hundreds of years. These hard-earned rights are the safeguards that protect us from abuses of power, and we need say nothing only once for them to be taken away once more…

” … and rights aren’t rights if someone can take them away. They’re privileges! That’s all we’ve ever had in this country, a bill of temporary privileges. And if you read the news, even badly, you will know the list gets shorter, and shorter and shorter.” — George Carlin