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Investigatory powers: the state of surveillance

“The choice for mankind lies between freedom and happiness and for the great bulk of mankind, happiness is better.” - George Orwell

This was George Orwell’s dystopian vision of 1984, when Big Brother would watch your every move. In 2013, whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed the extent of mass surveillance by the US and UK, who were secretly collecting data from their own citizens. His intention to spark a public debate was achieved, but mass surveillance is far from being curtailed.

On 30 December 2016, 67 years after Orwell’s book was first published, the Investigatory Powers Act came into force in the UK.

This new law, in the name of national security, gives a number of organisations the legal right to access web browsing history of people in the UK. Internet service providers (ISPs) must now store Internet Connection Records (a log of online activity) for the entire population and surrender it upon request. Records will be kept for 12 months. Companies who can access the online history of any UK citizen range from various police forces and security services, to the Department of Health, Department for Transport, and the Food Standards Agency.

According to Big Brother Watch, no other European or Commonwealth country asks ISPs to store this information.

The European Court of Justice decided that the indiscriminate collection of communications is illegal. With Brexit on the horizon, the impact of this decision is unclear.

Police and security services also have new powers to hack into computers and phones. Cameras or microphones can be controlled, files can be accessed, and passwords can be read.

The act throws into question the relationship between privacy and security. Human rights activist Wafa Ben Hassine said: “Are you hiding guns or drugs in your house? If not, then why do you lock your door? It’s so you can have your privacy. It’s the same thing with surveillance. I wouldn’t leave my door unlocked without reason, although I have nothing to hide. I like to keep my life private.”

Dubbed by many as ‘the Snooper’s Charter,’ the government says the act is needed to ensure security forces have the “powers they need in a digital age to disrupt terrorist attacks.”

A petition calling for the law to be repealed reached 210,924 signatures, but was not debated by parliament. In response to the petition, the government said: “The Investigatory Powers Act dramatically increases transparency around the use of investigatory powers. It protects both privacy and security and underwent unprecedented scrutiny before becoming law.”

While the intention is to intercept potential terrorist threats, the powers allow for indiscriminate surveillance, whether or not a person is perceived to be a security risk. Personal data, communications, and web history are no longer private, and freedom of expression is at risk. Is this a fair price to pay for national security, or should privacy be sacred?

Wafa Ben Hassine said her greatest concern over digital rights is: “Governments using national security rhetoric to make people think they have to sacrifice a part of their liberty in order to have a secure country or a genuine safe livelihood.”

Following the release of Snowden’s documents, Don’t Spy On Us, a privacy, free expression and digital rights coalition, called for an end to mass surveillance. They demanded transparent laws, and no surveillance without suspicion. While enquiries did take place, the end of mass surveillance was not to be realised, and instead became law.

The group continues to campaign, saying: “Surveillance should be targeted towards those who are suspected of carrying out a crime.”

Another development in the state of UK surveillance is the Digital Economy Bill, currently being discussed in parliament. While the bill promises to secure high speed broadband, it also proposes that public authorities should be able to share individuals’ information among themselves, and with some private companies.

Hand-in-hand with surveillance comes another favourite realm of the dystopian novel - censorship. Another clause under the bill aims to restrict access to online pornography through age restrictions and a ban from displaying ‘non-conventional’ sexual acts, even if they are legal. Free speech campaigners argue that people’s private lives should not be controlled in this way by the government, and some have questioned whether this will pave the way for further censorship.

Find out more about the Investigatory Powers Bill at the Lush Summit.

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