The government have come under a heap of criticism recently after announcing some new privacy-reducing internet laws. Included in a draft of the Investigatory Powers Bill, internet firms will be tied to keeping a record of people’s online activity for a total of 12 months.
The bill has been labelled by Prime Minister David Cameron as one of the most important pieces of legislation his current government will pass. After years of intense debate over Britain’s powers of surveillance, three separate committees all recommended a serious overhaul to our legal framework on the issue.
Security chiefs and policing organisations feel reform of their powers is long overdue, with the current legislation described as confusing, fragmented and full of grey areas. Central to their complaints is that the current laws were written before the boom of the digital age, leading to hiding places online for those who are a threat to social security.
What are the current powers?
Under current UK law, security agencies and the state are able to access your email, phone calls, mail and devices such as smartphones and computers- if they feel that certain individual is a threat to national security or just generally committing crimes.
Supporters of public surveillance suggest that laws such as this are justified in order to counter the threat of terrorism. Those opposed to the laws would suggest it diminishes our freedom as members of a modern society, removing our right to privacy and proving George Orwell was a visionary all along.
What will the new powers be?
Whilst agencies are currently able to access the things mentioned above, internet traffic is not currently in the remit. This is the key area Home Secretary Theresa May, who is overseeing the new legislation, wants to drill down into.
The new bill will propose that internet firms keep hold of customer browsing information for 12 months, which can then be requested by authorities should they deem that individual a threat. The data would cover domain names and not entire web page URLs.
The government are essentially looking to broaden their powers of surveillance to cover our movements on the internet. May has moved to distance the new laws from those she attempted to make in 2012. Blocked by the Lib Dems during the coalition, laws on collecting and storing customer phone and internet records came in for significant opposition, earning the title “Snooper’s Charter”.
Encryption, and the powers of companies to protect their customer’s data, is also coming under scrutiny in the new bill. Stopping short of banning encryption entirely, the government will now stop companies using “strong” levels of encryption. That will bring an end to end-to-end encryption (currently used by services such as Whatspp and iMessage), which offers a higher level of protection for customer data than basic encryption. Instead, firms must hold the power to unlock any data they’ve encrypted if asked to do so, leaving end-to-end encryption as no longer an option.
In order to extinguish the fears of an increase in the government’s snooping, a number of safeguards have been announced with the intention of protecting those who are innocent. Central to that is the promise that no data will be accessed without a reasonable level of suspicion. Whilst that might sound a little vague, a change in who can authorise the access is also changing. Previously, ministers had the final say on proposals to delve into someone’s communications. Under the new bill, that responsibility will be passed over to a judge, meaning each attempt to exercise surveillance laws will have to be deemed acceptable on legal grounds rather than just political ones.
To stop any abuse of the regulations, a new criminal offence will be created for accessing this data unlawfully. Coupled with barring councils from requesting internet data (they can request communications data), any unlawfully public access could result in two years in prison.
A worrying precedent?
We expect to know more on the Investigatory Powers Bill next year, but the intense scrutiny is already well underway. Might the intrusive laws be the beginning of a wider plan to increase government snooping on the general public, and diminish our civil liberties? Given what we now know in a post-Snowden world, do you trust the government to properly enforce the safeguards put in place and use their new powers as intended? And are those intentions righteous in the first place?