It certainly has been quite some year for us in the UK! Although so-far somewhat sidelined in the rancorous debates leading up to general election on 8 June, the issues of online privacy and mass surveillance have never been so urgent.
So where do the major political parties stand on mass government surveillance?
“The UK has just legalised the most extreme surveillance in the history of western democracy. It goes further than many autocracies.”
The IPA provides the UK government with the legal framework to spy on every citizen’s telephone conversations, emails, text messages, and web browsing history.
It also grants the government wide powers to hack into computers, force companies to weaken the security of their encrypted products with backdoors, and imprison any whistleblower who attempts to warn customers that this has happened.
Furthermore, the information collected will be available to a ridiculously large number of government organizations. These include bodies such as the Department of Health, HM Revenue and Customs, the Postal Services Commission, the NHS Ambulance Service Trust, the Scottish Ambulance Service Board, and many more.
“Extreme” hardly does the IPA justice. The UK government has granted itself power to become the most repressive surveillance state in the so-called free world. For a full discussion on why this terrible law constitutes a full-frontal assault on our freedom, please see here.
The IPA was Prime Minister Theresa May’s personal flagship policy, and she has shown ruthless determination in getting it passed. It is also clear that she has every intention of making some of its more controversial provisions a reality.
A recently leaked draft document shows that the government is planning to implement mass realtime surveillance of Internet Service Provider (ISP) customers, and to force backdoors into encrypted products.
That the government has worked hard to ensure the public is largely unaware of the IPA’s existence, let alone its implications, is quite frankly criminal.
In addition to pushing forward with the IPA, the Tory Party will introduce a regulatory framework aimed at forcing the digital economy to abide by UK laws. According to the Conservative Manifesto 2017 (p82),
“We will establish a regulatory framework in law to underpin our digital charter and to ensure that digital companies, social media platforms and content providers abide by these principles. We will introduce a sanctions regime to ensure compliance, giving regulators the ability to fine or prosecute those companies that fail in their legal duties, and to order the removal of content where it clearly breaches UK law. We will also create a power in law for government to introduce an industry-wide levy from social media companies and communication service providers to support awareness and preventative activity to counter internet harms”.
Summary: The Tories (and Theresa May personally) have declared war on privacy. They are in process of building a surveillance state that would make George Orwell’s Big Brother proud.
Riven by internal divisions, bitter rivalries, and repeated leadership challenges, the Labour Party showed no interest in opposing what is arguably the greatest assault on the liberty of UK citizens since Hitler attempted to invade our country. One big difference being, of course, that Hitler did not succeed.
The party did make some half-hearted efforts to amend the proposed Investigatory Powers legislation to include more privacy safeguards. The most important of these was that there should be a presumption in favour of privacy.
In the event, however, no such amendments were made. At the second reading of the bill, Labour meekly abstained from voting, thus allowing it to pass almost completely unopposed and unamended. At third reading, Labour voted in favour of the unamended bill.
Labour has since chosen not to make a big issue out of mass surveillance in the run-up to the 2017 election. This could possibly be due to an unwillingness to re-ignite conflict over deep-seated divisions within the party.
That said, according to the Labour Manifesto 2017 (p77),
“The exercise of investigatory powers must always be both proportionate and necessary. We will reintroduce effective judicial oversight over how and when they are used, when the circumstances demand that our collective security outweighs an individual freedom.”
So Labour will not repeal any of the IPA. This is disappointing, but it will at least improve oversight over its powers.
Summary: Labour does not support the IPA and May’s drive for greater mass surveillance. Despite its importance, however, engaging in the issue is not a priority for the party.
Scottish Nationalist Party
The SNP opposed the IPB on its final reading, but to chose join Labour in abstaining during the second reading.
As a matter of official policy,
“The SNP voted against the UK government’s Investigatory Powers Bill. The Bill received royal assent while many of the SNP concerns were left unaddressed by the UK Government.
“The SNP welcomed the Bill’s attempt to codify law enforcement’s existing powers and to provide an enhanced oversight regime. However, we feel it has fallen far short of its avowed goals. There are still a number of concerns that remain and in particular, we oppose the far-reaching bulk powers to acquire the personal and private data of our constituents. The majority of the contentious areas of the Bill relate to powers that are reserved to Westminster.
“The SNP supports giving the security services and the police the necessary powers to fight serious crime and terrorism, but it is vital that any new powers are proportionate, focused, and in accordance with law.”
This seems to be the limit of the SNP’s interest in the matter. The party has published no concrete proposals on how it would handle the issue of mass surveillance going forward, or in the quite likely event of Scotland achieving independence in the near future.
Liberal Democrat Party
The Lib Dems were the only major political party to oppose the Investigatory Powers Bill to the bitter end. It voted against it at the final reading. The Lib Dems are also the only party to actively promise to “roll back surveillance powers” in its Manifesto 2017 (p76):
“Roll back state surveillance powers by ending the indiscriminate bulk collection of communications data, bulk hacking, and the collection of internet connection records.”
The manifesto also pledges to “oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption” and to “notify innocent people who have been placed under targeted surveillance where this can be done without jeopardising ongoing investigations.”
Summary: The Lib Dems are the only major party to show any real interest in, or commitment to, protecting British citizens and repealing the terrible Investigatory Powers Act.
The Green Party
The Green Party of England and Wales consistently opposed the IPA. Since becoming law, however, it seems to have forgotten about the issue. There is no mention of the Investigatory Powers Act or government surveillance in its Manifesto 2017.
Summary: Not that it really matters much in practice, but the Green Party (GPEW) opposes the IPA and increased government surveillance powers. It has not indicated, however, whether it would repeal the legislation in the event of it becoming elected.
The Lib Dems are the only party to include opposition to the Investigatory Powers Act and increased government surveillance in its manifesto. Realistically, however, this is neither here nor there.
The only party capable of preventing Theresa May’s plans to turn the UK into a fully-fledged surveillance state is Labour. Unfortunately, Labour is much more interested in fighting battles elsewhere.
Were Labour to actually win the upcoming election, we could reasonably expect the IPA and further mass surveillance plans to be quietly side-lined. As the main opposition party in the event of a Conservative win, however, it is clear that Labour has no interest in challenging May’s Orwellian plans.