The UK government is expected to re-introduce the third draft of the Investigatory Powers Bill — known to most as the Snooper’s Charter — in Parliament today. Home secretary Theresa May announced her intentions to bring back the bill after the Conservative Party won the 2015 General Election earlier this year.
The Snooper’s Charter failed to win the backing of Parliament twice, but now that the Conservative Party is not in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats it has more power to enact new laws. It was previously named the Communications Data Bill, and has seen a few changes to make it more appealing.
Part of the bill includes the government instructing Internet service providers to store records of every single citizen’s online activity, including websites visited and apps used, for 12 months. The new draft confirms that security services and police will need a warrant to access the information, and that councils will not be able to access the system.
This is similar to the collection of techniques used by the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), according to information leaked by Edward Snowden. The government is now looking to legalize the surveillance, albeit with a few changes to make it less Orwellian.
Another part of the bill bans end-to-end encryption, a feature used by Apple, Google, and WhatsApp. The UK government asserts that unbreakable encryption gives terrorists, paedophiles, and criminals a safe space on the Internet. Critics claim that end-to-end encryption is a direct response to mass surveillance, orchestrated by the NSA and GCHQ, and used by millions to keep the government out of their lives.
There is some confusion over the extent of this proposal. A Telegraph report says companies such as those mentioned above will no longer be able to provide end-to-end encryption services, but the BBC states overseas companies will not be forced to comply with the law. Prime Minister David Cameron said during Prime Minister’s Question Time that the government should be able to tap into Internet communications in the same way it taps into a fixed phone or mobile calls.
The Investigatory Powers Bill does provide the ability for the court to overrule the home secretary on spying operations, though in the past those courts have been incapable of rooting out the problem until it had gone well beyond what the public would tolerate. The home secretary also claims that the highest level of scrutiny will be placed on those surveying the collected material.
The draft will be viewed by both sides of the government, before statements and changes are made. It will then be voted on in Parliament, and if it succeeds the government will be able to force companies to hand over the information required.
The major worry for privacy advocates is how much data the UK government will force others to retain. The names of visited webpages might be a compromise people are willing to take, but Snowden’s leaked documents showed the GCHQ hacking into webcams, mobile phones, Facebook, and other extremely private parts of a person’s electronic life, which could be extremely harmful if that information got into the wrong hands.