For years, Britain has been the nerve center of one of the most extensive and invasive spying operations ever devised. Comparing the UKs GCHQ to the NSA, Edward Snowden noted that,
“It’s not just a US problem. The UK has a huge dog in this fight. They [GCHQ] are worse than the US.”
Despite reassurances by the UK government to the contrary, the legal foundation for this mass spying operation, plus the nature of any oversight or restrictions on GCHQ’s operations have been hazy at best. Edward Snowden said,
“You’ve got their own admission in their own documents that ‘we’ve got a much lighter oversight regime than we should have,’ full stop. That’s what they’re talking about. They enjoy authorities that they really shouldn’t be entitled to Tempora [GCHQ’s internet surveillance program] is really proof … that GCHQ has much less-strict legal restrictions than other Western government intelligence.”
The avowed purpose of the highly controversial draft Investigatory Powers Bill (DRIP, aka “the snoopers’ charter”) is to address this problem by putting what the government freely admits is happening anyway, on a “firmer legal footing.”
Stop! Rewind! Yes, you read that correctly. Thanks to Mr. Snowden, we now know that the UK is the center of a vast spying network that grants itself almost unlimited powers to hack into not just every aspect of UK citizens’ digital lives, but into all international data that passes through the UK’s transatlantic fiber-optic communications hubs.
So caught with its pants firmly down, what does the government do? Apologise and stop doing it? Not a chance. Open an honest and wide-ranging debate about whether such unprecedented attacks on the personal liberties of its citizens (and those of just about everywhere else in the world!) can ever be justified on either practical or moral grounds? Nope.
What DRIP does is say, “what we are doing is of dubious legality (at best), so we’ll just change the law to make it legal!” Yay!
Absolutely nowhere is any meaningful discussion being had over whether the government should have these powers at all. As George Orwell understood well, privacy is a fundamental prerequisite for developing new ideas and discussing them the others.
When people are afraid that everything they do is being watched, developing personal opinions and expressing dissenting views becomes all but impossible. It is no coincidence that just about every totalitarian regime that has ever existed went to great lengths to undermine privacy (such as by encouraging friends and family members to spy on each other).
With the huge troves of data it collects, GCHQ already suffers a “find the needle in the haystack” problem when it comes to identifying terrorists and criminals (for example, none of the powers granted by DRIP would have been of any use in preventing the latest Paris attack). What the new mass surveillance powers will likely achieve is a “chilling effect” on freedom of expression,
“New snooping laws could result in ‘mass surveillance’ and have a ‘chilling effect’ in freedom of expression, the United Nations human rights watchdog has warned. A lack of appropriate oversight and transparency will ‘ultimately stifle fundamental freedoms’ the UN experts on civil liberties said.”
At present, such limited public debate as exists on the issue is limited to scaremongering political soundbites that capitalize on our fear of terrorists and sex monsters,
“Do we allow terrorists safer spaces for them to talk to each other. I say no we don’t – and we should legislate accordingly.”
Britain is the world’s oldest modern democracy, and its citizens’ liberties have been hard fought for by generations. The snoopers charter is a full-frontal assault on personal privacy (and therefore on freedom) that will roll back these advances by 400 years or more. This makes the mainstream press’ silence on the matter puzzling (to say the least), and probably accounts for the public’s apparent apathy on the matter.
Perhaps even more curious given the UK’s frank admission that it spies on the communications from just about everywhere, is the international community’s docile response, especially when we consider that DRIP will empower the UK government to demand that international companies decrypt data belonging to their customers.
Keen to limit the scope of debate to technical issues within the bill (rather than debating whether it should exist at all), the Conservative-led government tasked its hand-picked Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) to compile a report (.pdf), which was published on 9 February.
“Given the background to the draft Bill and the public concern over the allegations made by Edward Snowden in 2013, it is surprising that the protection of people’s privacy – which is enshrined in other legislation – does not feature more prominently. One might have expected an overarching statement at the forefront of the legislation, or to find universal privacy protections applied consistently throughout the draft Bill. However, instead, the reader has to search and analyse each investigatory power individually to understand the privacy protections which may apply. This results in a lack of clarity which undermines the importance of the safeguards associated with these powers.”
The ISC is personally nominated by the prime minister and chaired by the former Conservative attorney general, Dominic Grieve, so the robustness of its criticism is surprising. The report does make it clear that the ISC supports the government’s plans to provide a “legal framework” for its bulk spying powers, but as Greive observes,
“It is nevertheless disappointing that the draft bill does not cover all the agencies’ intrusive capabilities – as the committee recommended last year. This means that the various powers and authorisations remain scattered throughout different pieces of legislation and, as a result, the draft bill is limited in the extent to which it can provide a comprehensive legal framework. In our view it is a missed opportunity.”
Major problems highlighted by the report include:
- General lack of transparency
- The bill separates warrants for “equipment interference” (computer hacking) into “targeted” and “bulk”, with bulk warrants only made available to security organizations, not law enforcement. There is nothing, however, to prevent police from applying for a targeted warrant against an entire organization (such as an entire hostile foreign intelligence service!).
- Only “equipment interference” powers related to intelligence gathering are covered, with no regulation for attack powers.
- The legislation’s approach to “communications data” is inconsistent, confusing, and lacks any clear safeguards.
“We consider these changes necessary if the government is to bring forward legislation which provides the security and intelligence agencies with the investigatory powers they require, while protecting our privacy through robust safeguards and controls.”