The Home Secretary, Theresa May, has outlined the aims of a draft version of the Investigatory Powers Bill, also known as the Snooper’s Charter, which is presently being scrutinised in parliament. The bill is an attempt to introduce the first comprehensive British surveillance law of the digital era; the legislation is intended to overhaul existing laws of a similar nature, which control how the state, police and spies gather private communications data to help deal with crime, terrorism and other threats to national security.
May has claimed the legislation is being brought in to ensure surveillance laws are “modern, fit for purpose and can respond to emerging threats as technology advances”. The proposals have been announced just months after leading security chiefs and privacy campaigners publically declared that the existing rules are obsolete; compounding this opinion, an independent watchdog has previously called for a “complete rethink” of the UK’s current laws concerning communications powers.
Among the new powers being recommended in the bill is the requirement for organisations to retain a year’s worth of people’s communication data, including information on what services, websites and data sources people use when they are online. This may sound invasive; however, it is important to remember that the firms will not store the details details of what you did within each service, unless a warrant is obtained to allow for this. The bill would also cover various other powers, including the ability to intercept and read communications, although only when such action has been authorised by the Home Secretary. In addition, ‘interference’ with computers, such as hacking to obtain information, would be permitted in certain circumstances, and communications companies would be legally obliged to assist in officially sanctioned hacking operations. Finally, the collection of considerable amounts of data would be allowed in order for it to be examined in the search for leads or patterns of criminality.
At face value, the draft legislation can come across as “worse than scary”, as it was described by Joseph Cannataci, the UN’s special rapporteur on privacy. However, there are proposed safeguards to prevent any abuse of these potential new powers. Government ministers have suggested the creative of a new Investigatory Powers Commission (IPC), headed by senior judges; this would act as a ‘double lock’ on interception warrants, meaning that when a minister signs off a request to monitor communications, such procedures cannot commence until they have been certified by commissioners. The IPC would be required to act as a public body, and to explain how their powers are being used. The implementation of such a commission would lead to an unprecedented level of communications oversight, unparalled by any other country in the world.
Obviously, the bill would bring with it an invasion of privacy and the secret observation of the public. Moreover, you would have no idea if the state is monitoring you specifically. Nonetheless, of the data that communications firms would be obliged to store, it is likely that none of it would ever actually be analysed. The powers in this bill are there to help track potential criminal and terrorist activity, and not for MI5 to have a chuckle at the soppy messages you send to your significant other. In an age where the majority of our day-to-day communications occur online, it is only right for existing laws to be updated to reflect such societal change. If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to be worried about.