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18 January 2017 by Charlie Penwarden

We're Watching You: The Investigatory Powers Act

We're Watching You: The Investigatory Powers Act

EVER GET THE FEELING YOU’RE BEING WATCHED?

In the near future this may not be just a case of paranoia, but an accepted fact in the ever–growing digital world that we live. The Investigatory Powers Act is a game changer for the internet in the UK and not in an all positive way.

The Investigatory Powers Act started its life back in 2012 as the ‘Draft Communications Data Bill’ created by the coalition government to allow communication providers to collect and store data on their customers. The Deputy Prime Minister at the time, Nick Clegg, opposed this and so the Liberal Democrats blocked the law from being passed. So that was that. Right? Well no, the Tory party went on to win the general election, at which point the then Home Secretary, Theresa May, announced that the earlier bill had been amended and was now known as the Investigatory Powers Act, or as some call it: the Snoopers’ Charter. The Investigatory Powers Act has since been approved by the House of Lords, leaving only Royal Assent before becoming law.

So here we are on the brink of one of the largest laws to affect the digital world being passed with little to no fanfare or opposition. What does this mean for us, the users of the internet? The changes which are coming may not be noticeable at first, but they will affect every single person who uses the internet or a mobile phone. Once the law is passed the police and UK intelligence agencies will be able to intercept any communications by anyone without a warrant and then keep this data. Every website visited, every text message sent, every email written; with no reason required. All of this information will be stored by the government and be readily accessible by a large number of authorities such as the Foods Standard Agency, NHS and Department for Transport. The full list can be found at Parliament’s Publications website (page 212). It’s also fair to say that this isn’t coming cheap, and has been estimated to cost £1.8 billion, although it is not yet known how much of this will be paid for by the taxpayer.

Now some might say that there’s no problem with this; that if you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to fear. I personally don’t believe this is the case, everyone should be aware of the impact a law like this has on personal privacy and the protection of it. There will be over 40 different authorities with access to this data. The access of personal information by an unscrupulous person will be very much possible which could lead to a number of negative actions such as shaming or extortion. There are many situations which could effect individuals as well, such as those who are victims of police misconduct or disabled people who may be put under surveillance to try and “catch them out”.

A bigger concern than that stated above, is the security of the data as a whole, to those outside of the proposed system. If the system was to be compromised by external parties, such as hacking groups or even countries, then the results could be disastrous. It’s unimaginable to think what the outcome might be of a foreign party having access to the full communications history of almost every person in the country.

So what can be done? A government petition was set up and reached 204,815 signatures meaning it would be put forward for consideration to be debated in Parliament; but the Petition Committee denied it, meaning no discussion was had. Beyond this, there are free speech organisations, such as Open Rights Group, who have a number of plans in place to try and oppose the law being finalised. There are a number of things individuals can do to try and avoid being monitored such as using VPNs or Tor, although in the future this could be seen as negative behaviour.

To me, this is a landmark moment that puts everyone’s privacy at risk; one which hasn’t been clearly explained – what is going to happen? How are we going to be protected? The level of awareness in the general public is very low.

“Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.” – Edward Snowden.

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