Shining a Light: The United Kingdom

An argument against ‘the Snooper’s Charter’; a combination of ideas, questions, issues and concerns summarised from a debate held by YorkPEN on the new legislation.

After the Charlie Hebdo attacks of January 2015, David Cameron was very quick to condemn these attacks on “our values – of free speech, [and] democracy”. Later that week he joined many other world leaders on a pro free speech rally in Paris. And yet, despite this purported concern for freedom, his government has been pushing a new piece of legislation which would see an increase in digital surveillance powers and arguably a assault on fundamental freedoms of speech, expression and privacy.

The Home Secretary tried to introduce the Draft Communications Data Bill, or the ‘Snooper’s Charter’ in 2012, but was blocked when the Liberal Democrats removed their support. It would have extended the range of data that communications companies were forced to retain for 12 months, to include details of messages sent on social media, webmail, voice calls over the internet and gaming, in addition to more traditional means of communication such as phone calls. It would not, however, include the content of messages, and authorities would have required a warrant to see the data.

Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014-15 is emergency legislation introduced to maintain the requirement that internet providers log details of internet, phone and text communications.  The human rights charity Liberty has serious concerns about the legality of the methods used to push through this legislation. The government is still pursuing further surveillance legislation with the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill 2014-15, which is currently going through parliament.


As this raises serious questions about freedom of expression, association, privacy and censorship, York PEN held a debate on the idea.

Two key issues came out of the debate.

The first is the fact that we use communication technology in a different way than in the past.

The new legislation proposed, claims to ‘simply’ bring new communication technology under the same rules as older technology such as phone calls.

The problem is, is that new technology such as social media is not the same as older communication methods. Facebook and other websites and apps are sold to us, and we use them as our own social space, where we share photos and stories, joke, complain and discuss.

When you then imagine a scenario in which the government has surveillance powers over all of your personal and face to face conversations and interactions, the legislation begins to seem a lot more sinister. Because of the way that technological communications are used today, this is arguably what is being proposed.

And so when government representatives wheel out the old cliché that ‘if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear,’ they are wrong. This attitude also seems to go against the concept of innocent until proven guilty – the burden of proof is with those under surveillance to not do anything that would be incriminating.

Besides, ‘nothing to hide’ is not the same as ‘everything for show’. This level of surveillance will give the authorities access to our communications and internet use, that may not be illegal, but we would nevertheless want it kept private. Information such as health, money, sexuality and politics might come under this bracket, which bring me to the second topic;

Trust. The issue of trust raises many questions and concerns:   

Part of the legislation is that a warrant would be required to gain access to this data, as you do now with older communication forms, but would you be told if that access was granted? Would it be difficult, or would access simply be presumed?

Do we trust the government, and private companies should they chose to contract out the task, to protect our data? In a You Gov survey, over 70% of people said they didn’t. Who would have access to it, and would it be open to corruption? Additionlly, given the recent prevalence of internet hacking stories, is there any assurance that our data with be kept safe?

Do we trust them to get it right? In 2008 Rizwaan Sabir and Hicham Yezza, a student and a staff member at the University of Nottingham were arrested for downloading illegal terrorist material, which they were using to do research on terrorism. Clearly if this could happen to academics, there is a risk the same could happen to anyone.

Finally, do we trust the government itself with our private information? Given that the government have been using illegal undercover policing to spy on perfectly legal ethical campaign groups, it seems unlikely. Would a government use your past connections to deny you employment? Would they use your internet search history to justify further surveillance? Will the fact that I’ve written this article, which could be electrically linked to me, affect me in the future?

On the whole, I think the general conclusion from the debate was that the Snooper’s Charter was not as benign, or as necessary as it has been painted to be. Arguments for its necessity will be illustrated with examples of how internet surveillance helped foiled terror plots. But these stories are rarely illustrated with clear facts – was the terror plot a foiled one by the researchers at the University of Nottingham? We can’t know. But there is much to suggest that this legislation will greatly damage human rights to privacy, and free speech and expression, and as such, we should be very wary and skeptical of its supposed necessity.



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