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Snooper's Charter Receives Royal Assent

Yesterday morning The Investigatory Powers Bill (also known as The Snooper’s Charter) became The Investigatory Powers Act after receiving royal assent in the UK. The legislation gives Secretary of State and numerous authorized officials (in the UK and potentially, worldwide) access to essentially any data transmitted electronically.

In an effort to crack down on security threats, the legislation outlines circumstances under which government officials can apply for a warrant to obtain and retain communications data. According to the act, a communication may include “anything comprising speech, music, sounds, visual images or data of any description,” as well as the transmission of such communications, itself.

Such permissions greatly encroach on the privacy of any UK citizen’s electronic activity - transmitted through the internet or otherwise.

Included in the 305 page act, is the protocol for requesting and obtaining access to such information. Six specific government officials have the right to apply for a warrant that would enable them to initiate the process of data collection, monitoring, and retention, in addition to any head of an intelligence service. Additionally, any overseas official deemed a “competent authority” may also apply for a warrant through the Secretary of State, as long as their intentions are to aid the UK under the terms of a mutual assistance agreement.

The reasons one may apply for a warrant are quite vast - covering everything from public health to debt collection.

It is the Secretary of State’s job to issue warrants, and a Judicial Commissioner’s responsibility to oversee those decisions. In cases of urgency, however, the Secretary of State may issue warrants unchecked by any other appointed official.

Unsurprisingly, a new amendment was written into the bill before it became an act, exempting members of parliament from being the subject of data collection and retention notices. The safeguard can only be lifted in the case of a targeted examination warrant, which must first be approved by the Prime Minister.

Warrant awardees may only commence data collection and retention after serving the individual, group, or other entity a notice, and receiving their consent to proceed. Recipients who decide not to comply can face a fine and/or in some cases, imprisonment.

This provision begs the question: will big telecommunications companies and operators (such as Internet Service Providers, or ISPs) simply opt for a fine to circumvent compliance requirements? Any person (or company) subject to data collection under such a warrant will supposedly be compensated for costs incurred in complying with the demands of a retention notice. But in the case of an ISP, it would be within a company’s best interest to pay for legal representation and a fine rather than compromise a customer’s (or thousands of customers, in the case of bulk retention) user data.

UK citizens have been vocal regarding their concern, particularly, of the potential collection of bulk datasets, acquired under a bulk acquisition warrant. Such data could include a web customer’s complete online browsing history, as well as information from emails and messaging services.

The act is not the only to have passed through Parliament this season that concerns internet privacy, surveillance, and new attempts to regulate the web - the Digital Economy Bill is currently awaiting its second reading in The House of Lords. A petition to amend the bill was rejected by parliament.

The Investigatory Powers Act continues to be heavily petitioned by the populace, and has received 151,910 signatures (over 50K more than is required). Parliament has responded to the petitioning of this act previously, and now must reconsider the matter for debate in light of the petition’s success. A tentative date is scheduled to be announced within the next week.

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