The Queen’s Speech was delivered yesterday. It confirmed that the newly elected Conservative government intends to capitalize on the outright majority it gained during the recent UK general election to greatly extend its surveillance powers (full text of the Queen’s Speech is available here).
There are currently no drafts of the proposed Investigatory Powers Bill publically available yet, so details are still quite thin on the ground. But when the relevant remarks in the Queen’s Speech are combined with its accompanying background briefing notes (.pdf) and past comments made by Home Secretary Theresa May, a clear picture of the government’s intent can be discerned.
1. The ‘Snooper’s Charter’ is back
This comes as no surprise, as the only reason that the Draft Communications Data Bill (aka ‘the snooper’s charter’) was dropped during the government’s last term in office was opposition from the then deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg. Now that the government has sole power, it was inevitable that this horrible piece of legislation would return.
The new legislation, worryingly billed as required to ‘provide the police and intelligence agencies with the tools to keep you and your family safe,’ will include the snooper’s charter provisions requiring ISPs and telecoms operators to keep metadata logs of all customers.
This includes all emails, IM chat sessions, web browsing sessions, VoIP calls, phone calls, and text messages sent. The entire UK population’s social media activity will also be monitored and logged. These logs will probably have to be kept for at least a year, and will be accessible to a worryingly wide array of government agencies.
It is possible that some form external judicial oversight may be required to access this data (‘appropriate oversight arrangements and safeguards’ are promised), but current indications suggest that a simple internal review process is more likely.
2. Huge expansion of surveillance powers
Somewhat less expected by many is the huge expansion of surveillance of powers permitted to the security services. Those paying attention, however, can hardly claim to be surprised, given the Conservative Party’s election manifesto pledge,
‘We must always ensure our outstanding intelligence and security agencies have the powers they need to keep us safe. At the same time, we continue to reject any suggestions of sweeping, authoritarian measures that would threaten our hard-won freedoms.’
According to the Guardian’s analysis of the proposals,
‘The legislation will include not only the expected snooper’s charter, enabling the tracking of everyone’s web and social media use, but also moves to strengthen the security services’ warranted powers for the bulk interception of the content of communications.’
As Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group observes,
‘The government is signalling that it wants to press ahead with increased powers of data collection and retention for the police and GCHQ, spying on everyone, whether suspected of a crime or not… This is the return of the snooper’s charter, even as the ability to collect and retain data gets less and less workable. We should expect attacks on encryption, which protects all our security. Data collection will create vast and unnecessary expense.’
A point the government is keen to emphasize (it is mentioned twice in the briefing pack), is what it terms the need to close the ‘gap in capability’ between security agencies’ ability to gather knowledge, and what is needed to prevent terrorist offenses,
‘[The bill will] better equip law enforcement and intelligence agencies to meet their key operational requirements, and address the gap in these agencies’ ability to build intelligence and evidence where subjects of interest, suspects and vulnerable people have communicated online.’
‘Despite the collection of current and former CIA, GCHQ and SIS officials, counter-terrorism commanders, security managers, and former permanent secretaries present, as well as the former chair of Britain’s Intelligence and Security Committee, I did not hear the phrase “capability gap” mentioned. That sort of rhetoric seemed to be reserved for the political arena.’
Use of this concept is also questioned by Renate Samson, chief executive of Big Brother Watch,
‘We have yet to see real evidence that there is a gap in the capability of law enforcement or the agencies’ ability to gain access to our communications data.’
The silver lining to this grim surveillance cloud is that Cameron is likely to encounter serious difficulties passing his proposals into law. Although his party now commands an outright majority in parliament, at only 11 seats this is a very slim one, and he is already facing opposition from his own back benches (with David Davis MP being the most outspoken critic of the proposed new government surveillance powers.)
Furthermore, it is almost certain that the Bill will be challenged in the European Court of Justice (ECJ). Given that the ECJ struck down the EU Data Retention Directive in April last year, declaring it unconstitutional on human rights grounds, it is highly likely that such a challenge will succeed.
‘By requiring the retention of those data and by allowing the competent national authorities to access those data, the directive interferes in a particularly serious manner with the fundamental rights to respect for private life and to the protection of personal data. Furthermore, the fact that data are retained and subsequently used without the subscriber or registered user being informed is likely to generate in the persons concerned a feeling that their private lives are the subject of constant surveillance.’
For reasons such as this, David Cameron is increasingly keen for the UK to ‘free itself’ from European legislation (including the European convention on human rights!). Whether he can succeed, however, or whether the issue will tear his party apart, remains very much to be seen.
A few scant years ago not even the most power-hungry right-wing politician could have contemplated introducing such a wide ranging assault on freedom and privacy of every British citizen. Yet without concerted grass-roots opposition, this is precisely what is now going to happen. In addition to protecting your own privacy with tools such as VPN, Tor, encrypted chat and messaging apps, UK citizens can get involved in campaigning against this heinous legislation by joining the #Reinst8 #StopSnooping campaign.