Jonathan Tait takes us through the details and controversial aspects of the Investigatory Powers Bill, also known as the Snoopers Charter.
The Snoopers Charter, or the Investigatory Powers Bill, seems increasingly likely to pass through the Commons with relative ease. A spiritual successor to the quasi-Orwellian Communications Data Bill that disappeared from the Conservative Party’s agenda over the past year, the Investigatory Powers Bill is scheduled to go ahead for its third reading over the course of the next few months and may become law as soon as Autumn 2016. As of today, May 3rd, it has reached the Committee stage and is expected to go for its third reading by June.
It presages an omnipresent and invasive panopticon that will monitor all UK citizens in order to formulate a digital profile of every individual, constructed through the creation of bulk personal data sets of their texts, phone calls, internet history and all other associated digital footprints. Ultimately, its aim is to prevent cyber-crime and protect British citizens. The British intelligence services and the police will be granted the right to search and access this information without a warrant. The Snoopers Charter passing through the Commons and Lords would create the first government mandated and legal mass state surveillance framework anywhere in the world. Yet it is excessively invasive, and will collect, compile and store data from the average law-abiding citizen without their consent, awareness, and trust. It is an accident waiting to happen, and an infringement on our right to privacy.
It is all too easy to joke around that ‘David Cameron will see your snapchats’ and ‘MI5 will love that banter on the group chat last night’, but there are two incredibly pressing issues resulting from the Snoopers Charter. The first is the profound stifling of free expression that it will engender. If one knows that someone might be watching and listening, and one can be held accountable to what they say or write or do, even if what they’re doing isn’t unlawful, they may, as I certainly would, feel inhibited to behave in the same way. The second is the fact that the Snoopers Charter will impede on our rights to privacy laid out historically over the course of the 20th Century.
The United Kingdom were instrumental in the establishment of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) in the wake of World War Two. It has protected millions of people throughout Europe since 1953. Article 8 of the ECHR stipulates that all citizens have a right to privacy concerning their “private and family life, his home and his correspondence”, excepting restrictions “in accordance with law” and “necessary in a democratic society”. The Snoopers Charter is not directly at odds with the ECHR, however it is attempting to subvert the conditions of exception laid out in Article 8. It seeks to create a restriction to privacy, without legitimate necessity. The well worn argument of ‘If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear’ is, frankly, utter twaddle; if issues of digital privacy where transposed into the modicums and media of the ‘real’ world, we would all be signing ourselves up to permitting intelligence services access to know all aspects of our lives. Would any of us willingly invite our local constabulary and GCHQ into our homes, letting them rifle through our possessions like we’re on Through the Keyhole, and then trusting them to look after that information securely for any amount of time? I certainly wouldn’t, and for that exact reason, I can’t bring myself to trust the same services with same powers over my digital presence, which in this day and age is as much a part of our identities and lives as our physical means of expression.
The United Kingdom’s relationship with Europe and the protection of human rights is virtually inseparable. As the EU referendum lingers only weeks in the distance one I can’t help but notice how enormously desperate the attempts of Theresa May to put the UK at odds with the EU are. Despite her promise she would vote to remain part of the EU as a stand of solidarity with David Cameron she recently remarked the UK should leave the ECHR. Coincidentally she is spearheading the campaign for the introduction of the Investigatory Powers Bill, unsurprisingly she is also the sponsor of this Bill in Parliament. The potential secession from the EU might provoke a respective secession from the ECHR – granting the Snoopers Charter continuously less resistance from grander structures than Westminster.
Which of course begs the question: what exactly is it going to take to stop the Investigatory Powers Bill becoming law? When Her Majesty’s opposition seemed unsure how to play the cards throughout the course of the second reading, I was profoundly disappointed that they had to resort to abstaining. My political opinions aside, it left me incredulous that the Opposition couldn’t rally themselves to muster anything more than half-hearted passivity, after all it is their job to oppose as they see fit. And if the libertarians of the British political spectrum couldn’t fight for the protection of human rights, what hope is there in Westminster? By the time the imminent third reading comes around it seems hopeful that the establishment of the FUD, and a successful remain campaign in the EU referendum may well prevent the Snoopers Charter thanks to the machines of grander politics than the Commons.
On a grassroots level, I’d like to take the time to express commendation for Liberty’s prolific campaign against the Snoopers Charter which is found here. The video entitled “Show me yours…” applies a similar critique of the ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’ mentality propounded by an excessively invasive case against our right to privacy. Also, the Finnish security firm F-Secure make an interesting case against the Snoopers Charter in an open letter to David Cameron, arguing that more moderate regulation of computer security is the answer to tackling cyber-crime.