Once again whilst we were looking the other way, our freedoms were challenged and attacked in a most brutish way – You can blame the twin phenomena of Brexit and Donald Trump, used as distractions for Theresa May to rush through her personal hobby-horse – the Investigatory Powers Act (the Act) into law with barely a whisper of opposition last month.
I can imagine George Orwell turning over in his grave.
Given that it was reported that even our own intelligence chiefs were shocked by Mrs May’s apparent disregard for the extent that the new law (often called the ‘Snooper’s Charter’) allows the British Government to spy on its citizens’ internet use, it is unsurprising that the Prime Minister capitalised on the twin distractions of the US election and Brexit to get the Bill through the House.
The importance of the Act cannot be underestimated. It forces internet providers to store their customer’s internet usage data for 12 months, potentially allowing the British government and various agencies to see:
- Which websites you have visited
- The time you visited them
- The device you used to visit the website
- The browser or app you used
- Where you were when you visited the website
The same applies for internet based communication technologies such as Skype. Information such as who you called, from where and how long you talked will no longer be privy to only those participating in the conversation, the government can legally access this knowledge and use it against you.
Worried yet? Well, it is not quite as scary as it first seems. Although the website you visit will be visible to the government and various agencies, the actual web pages you access will not.
What you say and write will also remain private.
Going further than ever before
Home Secretary, Amber Rudd stated that the Act is ‘world-leading legislation’. Liberal commentators have ventured to ask what part of the world we are actually looking to lead, given that the UK government now has given itself more power than any other democratic country to monitor its citizens’ internet use.
When it comes to the privacy of its population, Britain now has more in common with North Korea than, say, Canada. Although this may change in the near future thanks to the constant threat of terrorism, not only from Islamist radical groups but far-right extremists who, thanks to the election of Trump and the arguments made for Brexit are finding their hate-filled rhetoric is not only acceptable but welcomed by some sections of society,
The threat of terrorism is what has driven this legislation and there are many who are happy to forgo their privacy in exchange for what they perceive as a safer society. After all, since 9/11, we now put up with intrusive searches and long delays every time we board an aircraft.
Freedom of the press
The Act has been described as a “death sentence for investigative journalism”. Why? Because it provides no protection for journalists and their sources (who are often government whistle-blowers). Was this a deliberate omission? I would like to think it was an oversight which will be corrected, after all, investigative journalism has always been one of the most effective methods of reigning in government powers and ensuring that, in a democracy, officials are answerable for their actions.
Protecting your privacy
Is there a way to protect yourself from the government knowing the websites you visit? One of the most effective way is to use a virtual private network (VPN). Multi-national corporates have been using these for years as a way of extending their private network across the internet. To protect yourself from powers given by the Snooper’s Charter, choose a VPN that is not UK-based and does not keep logs.
However, although a VPN can stop your ISP logging the websites you visit, you are still being tracked by dozens of advertisers. To prevent this, you could try logging onto the internet via a ‘virtual computer’ which is loaded onto your operating system and then discard it after every use.
Most people do not realise that the Snooper’s Charter has simply legalised acts that governments, police and intelligence agencies around the world have been engaging in for decades. For example, in October 2016, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal ruled that MI5, MI6 and the GCHQ had been unlawfully collecting personal data for the past 17 years.
Will this attack on our freedoms and privacy actually prevent terrorism? Won’t these terrorists just switch to other forms of communication using VPNs and encrypted systems to blunt the effect of this legislation? I suspect so. In fact, it is more than likely. That means that the people whose data will be gathered and studied will be folks like us, ordinary members of public.
The main concern is that the system is open to abuse. The idea of hacking into a database containing the personal information about UK citizen’s web browsing activities would send international hackers into a salivating frenzy. And if you think such a breach could not happen, consider that two-thirds of London’s councils have suffered from hacking since 2012.
Also can we have complete faith in our police forces? Given the increasing number of cases of police officers being convicted of criminal acts of harassment and assault on vulnerable individuals, do we have the confidence to give people like that access to all of our private internet data – where we shop, where we go to relax, what makes us laugh and cry? I’m not sure I’m altogether comfortable with that.
Balancing ordinary, law-abiding citizens’ rights to privacy and protecting those same citizens from harm has always been a difficult balance for Governments to achieve.
This Act is just another example of how much our world has changed over the past 15 years.
Saracens Solicitors is a multi-service law firm based opposite Marble Arch on the North side of Hyde Park in London. We have years of experience in advising corporations and businesses on privacy matters. For more information, please call our office on 020 3588 3500.
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