Draft Investigatory Powers Bill – Privacy Concerns

16 February 2016

Amethyst’s Ross Thomson takes a look at the key issues


Is the draft Investigatory Powers Bill a threat to our privacy?

The Bill was published on the 4 November 2015 and will only become law once it has passed through both Houses of Parliament. It is currently being widely consulted on, with many businesses, individuals and the parliamentary select committee raising concerns.

Conservative MP David Davis has said that “In every other country in the world, post Snowden, people are holding their Government’s feet to the fire on these issues, but in Britain we idly let this happen [..] because for the past 200 years, we haven’t had a Stasi or Gestapo, we are intellectually lazy about it so it’s an uphill battle”.  Similarly Edward Snowden tweeted “By my read the #SnoopersCharter legitimizes mass surveillance. It is the most intrusive and least accountable surveillance regime in the West”.

Why is to so controversial?

Well, for a start it has been widely reported that Clause 71 will require Communication Service Providers (CSPs), which includes ISPs and mobile phone companies to retain a record of all websites visited by every citizen for 12 months.  Essentially, this is an itemised list of everyone’s browsing history.  It does not include specific webpages but will record the domain name e.g. bbc.co.uk.  This history can include extremely private and sensitive information, which if it was ever compromised, would be a goldmine for fraudsters and the criminal community. For example, Phishing requests could be much better targeted because they will know who you bank with.  All this data will be stored by the communications provider, and if you think they can guarantee it is secure, it is worth remembering the TalkTalk hack of last year.

Part 5 of the draft Bill provides for law enforcement and the security and intelligence agencies to undertake targeted Equipment Interference (EI). What does this mean? Well, it puts on a ‘firmer legal footing’ the right of the police or security services to interfere with equipment for the purpose of gathering intelligence.  For example hacking into a home PC webcam, the microphones of mobile phones, even children’s toys that are connected to the internet. Privacy International remarked that the operational case for EI was ‘weak’ and a number of witnesses argued that the EI power was too intrusive. It stated that ‘Equipment interference (i.e. hacking), whether carried out by a government or private actor, is perhaps the most serious form of intrusion into someone’s private life, given that it involves access to private information without permission or notification. It also fundamentally breaches the integrity of the target’s own security measures. Unlike search warrants where the individual would at least be notified that their home or office was being searched, hacking generally takes place without a person’s knowledge. It is the equivalent of the police breaking into someone’s home’.

But what about the safeguards?

Many people argue that if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear.  However, this does not address the issue of a CSP hack which compromises your data.  The draft Bill does, however, introduce an extra layer of judicial authorisation for powers that have previously been subject to ministerial authorisation only. This procedure, described by the Government as a ‘double lock’ applies to warrants for targeted interception, targeted equipment interference, and all forms of bulk warrants. While this has been welcomed as an improvement on the current situation, concerns still remain. It is also worth remembering that this is a draft Bill and is subject to change.

Will it be effective?

For those that want to remain anonymous there are ways and means of doing so.  Using Proxies, Virtual Private Network (VPNs) and TOR you can ensure information cannot be gathered about you while you're browsing the Web.  They are fairly straightforward to set up and are being widely used by human rights activists, privacy nuts and those who want to hide their criminal activities. It is therefore debateable whether the benefits, argued by the State, outweigh the threats to our privacy and way of life.

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