As the internet absorbs more and more information, personal data is becoming wrapped up in a world wide web. Who exactly has access to that information is all about to change.
The Investigatory Powers Act, widely known as the Snooper’s Charter, has now passed into UK law, giving new powers to police and security services.
Under the act, a number of organisations will have the legal right to access the web browsing history of people in the UK. As individuals fall under the watchful gaze of the state, journalists are having to change their behaviour, with sources left unsure about their protections.
Members of the Don’t Spy on Us coalition, a union of freedom of expression and privacy groups, discussed the impact of the act at the Lush Summit, an event where charities, speakers and grassroots organisations from around the world met to discuss their work.
Far from surveilling individuals when there is grounds for suspicion, the new measures focus on mass data collection in a bid to prevent terrorism. Jo Glanville, director of freedom of expression organisation English PEN, said the issue goes way beyond national security: “That fundamental foundation of what makes us free people has gone.”
When information is shared online, it flows further than many people realise. This is a subject of particular interest to Big Brother Watch, a group founded to expose the extent of mass surveillance in the UK. The organisation’s chief executive Renate Samson joined the panel: “We all need to get to grips with the fact that whatever we do online isn’t a one to one conversation.”
She said that the minute a person is born, a file is created on them and held by the intelligence agencies: “You are now an individual of interest, even if you’re not up to anything that you shouldn’t be doing.”
While the country sees the effects of the Investigatory Powers Act come into force, she also drew attention to the Digital Economy Bill currently passing through parliament, which partly focuses on new measures to allow the sharing of data between public authorities and private companies. She said: "A minister will decide what happens with your data. But you are your data now."
Not only is data at the mercy of UK organisations, but GCHQ has a data sharing agreement with the NSA. Whatever the UK can see, so can the US.
Jim Killock, executive director of digital campaigning organisation Open Rights Group said: “Are you okay with Donald Trump making decisions about who does what to whom from data that’s been gathered up by GCHQ?”
After siding with public opinion over Brexit, the government claims to be listening to individual voices. Renate Samson said: “If the government is prepared to accept that the voice of the individual really matters, then value the fact that you have a voice.”
In line with the act, online organisations will now be required to decrypt and hand over information when requested to do so. Weak encryption puts everyone at risk, but companies may now be asked to weaken encryption within their platforms. When systems are weakened, so is national security, and the risk of cyber warfare is increased.
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.
Hacking relies on vulnerabilities in technology; the panel likened this to kicking in a door and consequently reducing security to a home. Rather than these vulnerabilities being fixed, they are being exploited for the purposes of surveillance.
Surrounded by activists and campaigners at the Lush Summit, the issue of privacy and security was significant. Any fears were well-founded according to Jim Killock, who said that the security services would likely be interested in surveilling environmental campaigners and animal rights activists. He suggested leaving mobile phones at home when engaging in direct action, and encrypting the content of emails to reduce risk not just to individuals, but to everyone else they are connected with.
He encouraged people to say: “We will stand up for our civil liberties and we will think about this as a human rights issue. We will defend human rights, not just for ourselves, but for others, because otherwise we won’t have full political freedom.”
Beyond individuals and their networks, he warned of the widespread damage the act could cause: “The whistleblowers who don’t whistleblow, the journalists who don’t report, the people who don’t get involved in your campaigns. That’s what you have to worry about.”
Renate Samson illustrated the real danger of the act, silencing arguments from people who say that those who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear: “Today you might be on the right side of the law. Today you might have a view that isn’t controversial. But now Trump’s here, and lots of people are fretting that their view, their liberal view, is suddenly the wrong side of what the government in the US thinks.”
With fears about privacy, freedom of expression and safety rife on the panel, Jim Killock urged people to make their concerns heard: “Fight for your rights. Believe in them.”
Watch the panel discussion on Lush Player
Hear more from Renate Samson on how to take control of your online data