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Snooper's Charter Threatens Online Privacy the UK

On November 16th a stark threat to UK internet users’ privacy passed through the House of Commons and House of Lords, and is currently awaiting royal assent before becoming an act (expected to occur before 2017, according to Wired).

If written into official law, the Investigatory Powers Bill could require internet services providers (ISPs) to keep records of certain users’ browsing histories and other data for up to twelve months. If served with a data retention notice, ISP owners must comply or face a fine, and in some instances, up to two years in prison.

Frighteningly, individuals with suspected access to sought after electronically transmitted data may also be targeted - even if that data no longer exists. 1

Commonly referred to as the Snooper’s Charter, the Investigatory Powers Bill was first introduced to parliament by Theresa May MP, who is currently the Conservative Party leader and was Home Secretary back in 2015. The bill originated in the Home Office as an effort to tighten security efforts, and has since bounced back and forth between the House of Commons and Lords in a parliamentary process known as ping-pong. (Ping-pong occurs when each of the Houses repeatedly amends a bill. A bill must pass through both Houses un-amended before receiving Royal Assent.) Despite moving between the House of Commons and Lords for a period of time, the bill has received little criticism within parliament; many of the amendments added to the bill aim to clarify previous legislation serving as its foundation as opposed to countering the stringent surveillance allowances laid out in the current bill.

Championed by May as a great effort to combat security threats at the national level, the Investigatory Powers Bill will allow the Secretary of State alongside a yet to be formed Technical Advisory Board to issue notices to any “telecommunications operator” with access to sought after data. This will allow the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) to then “make use of” any such data aiding in the protection of: national security, national economic well being, public health, and financial regulation and stability. Data relating to crime prevention and detection, active investigations, and debt collection will also be under scrutiny. 2

Data transmissions originating or terminating outside the UK are also subject to retention. 3

Beyond the obvious privacy breach that occurs when a government systematically acquires electronic data from its citizens, there is additional concern surrounding the way in which such data will not only be used, but kept. The bill discusses a need to store retained data securely during its retention period, yet spends a significant amount of page space outlining a proposed technical infrastructure for ensuring that data storage will exist “in such a way that it can be transmitted efficiently and effectively in response to requests,” 4 along with the resources required for a technological infrastructure that can support data collection and retention. But according to the bill, information will only be transmitted between authorized officials.

Those authorized officials hail from 39 different government agencies, offices, and departments, including the Security Service, the Secret Intelligence Service, GCHQ, the Ministry of Defense, Home Office, the Ministry of Justice, and the National Crime Agency. 5

Public response to the proposed legislation has not been positive, particularly because many suspect that it was no coincidence the Investigatory Powers Bill moved through parliament at the same time as Brexit proceedings. Members of the populace may contest legislation by means of petitioning, and if a petition receives a required amount of signatures, parliament must reconsider the legislation at hand before it can begin the process of royal assent. Current sentiments suggest the public eye was strategically diverted to Brexit during crucial petitioning time. The public, however, still managed to scrounge together 140,293 signatures - 40,293 more than is required for the petition to invoke parliamentary debate of the bill.

The government responded by sticking to its claims that the proposed privacy breach would ultimately serve as a necessary aid to tighten oversight of sensitive data in a digital age. Three days remain before parliament must announce a scheduled debate date.

1. Investigatory Powers Bill Page 63 - Part 3 Power to grant authorisations: (4)
2. Investigatory Powers Bill Page 63 - Part 3 Power to grant authorisations: (7)
3. Investigatory Powers Bill Page 49 - Duty of Operators to assist with implementation: (3)
4. Investigatory Powers Bill Pages 83-84 - Part 4: 9 (a) and (b)
5. Investigatory Powers Bill Page 259 - Section 71(1), Schedule 4: Part 1

Photo courtesy of Samuel Zeller.

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