May’s privacy neutrality – a unique phenomenon?

To what extent is the Investigatory Powers Bill a legal legitimisation of existing conventions within the UK’s security services, and why is this a concern?

“Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.” — Edward Snowden (Image source)

Privacy, the ability to seclude information about an individual or a group, and thereby express themselves selectively, is a key issue in the modern age. With an increasing use of the Internet – with 40% of the world now having Internet access, as opposed to just 1% in 1995 – the issue of online privacy and an open internet are more important now than ever before.

Many pundits and commentators from across the political spectrum have discussed the effects of the “snoopers’ charter”, or the Investigatory Powers Bill (IP Bill). Aside from the embarrassment some people may have over the government snooping on their internet histories, the issue of Internet surveillance touches on key cornerstones of the soon-to-be repealed Human Rights Act (HRA): that of freedom of speech, the right to liberty and security, respect for private and family life, freedom of expression and the freedom of association and expression. Considering that the IP Bill is being put into place roughly at the same time as the HRA is being repealed, the idea that provisions in that bill are to be overturned by a new “British Bill of Rights” look shaky, to say the least.

But how bad is this, really? One of the stock phrases of those in favour of government surveillance – from mass CCTV legislation to the “snoopers’ charter” – is that if one has “nothing to hide” from the government, then one has “nothing to fear” about surveillance, an argument which online privacy activists claim originated with the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, although this is desputed.

Either way, legal scholar Geoffrey Stone describes the argument as an “all-too-common refrain”. In using this appeal to the asserter’s bias, this amounts to an effective argumentum ad hominem, and implies a sympathy with terrorists, child sexual abusers (often incorrectly labelled as paedophiles) on the Internet, or any individual who may be spied upon by the government. This does nothing to resolve issues of terrorism or sexual abuse online, and as a matter of fact, risks exacerbating existing tensions within our society due to governmental overreach.

Human rights lawyer and former director of Liberty Shami Chakrabarti writes in her book On Liberty that:

We all have something to hide or at least to protect. We all have a wealth of past, permanent or potential information about us that could in the right or wrong hands lead to abuse by accident or design.

Harvey Silvergate, a legal expert in America, suggested that the average person unintentionally commits three felonies a day. Whilst the laws are different in the UK, it is possible for someone to be breaking the law and be totally unaware of it. Is it then fair that this person be subject to an invasion of privacy by the government? The “nothing to fear” argument soon falls flat on its face when logic is applied to it.

As Chakrabarti goes on to say in On Liberty, government overreach in collecting this type of information has been rampant, both in the past and in the present day. For example, when mandatory ID cards were introduced in Britain during the Second World War, the information collected on them was minimal; by the time the scheme was ended, the information on these cards had multiplied several times. And this was in the non-digital age – now, in the modern age, digital equipment can be interfered with much more easily. That’s why, in America, concerns are being raised over the propriety of electronic voting in the presidential election (mirroring concerns of voter machine bias in 2012) – can they be rigged, or even hacked? This question of interference also extends into issues of government surveillance.

Whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange have been lauded as heroes for exposing accounts of NSA, GCHQ and other governmental overreach. But how much of their whistleblowing will be in vain, with the passing of the “snoopers’ charter” in June of this year, and how far will it legitimise the practises which they sought to expose?

“Snoopers’ charter”

On 7 June, a surveillance bill only known to a quarter of the UK population passed in the House of Commons by 444 votes to 69 which threatens the basic and fundamental rights of British citizens: The Investigatory Powers Bill, or “snoopers’ charter”.

“This is neither a snoopers’ charter nor a plan for mass surveillance.” — Andy Burnham, Shadow Home Secretary (Image source)

This bill signs into law mass surveillance practises — such as the bulk interception and collection of communications data (metadata), as well as bulk “equipment interference” (aka hacking). The bill also forces phone and internet companies to store internet connection records — including every site any individual visits — for one year, and can be accessed by the police without a warrant. CIA whistleblower Edward Snowden has repeatedly referred to these records as “the activity log of your life”. All of this data, of course, would be available for police and security services to access as they wish.

This scheme officially comes at a cost of £247 million to the taxpayer over the next 10 years, although this may rise to £2 billion when considered with similar projects in Britain’s past, according to journalist Kelly Fiveash of The Register.

Although most Westminster MPs tend to downplay the issue of online privacy – with Shadow Home Secretary Andy Burnham saying that the IP Bill “is neither a snoopers’ charter nor a plan for mass surveillance”, and Prime Minister Theresa May saying “there is no programme of mass surveillance and there is no surveillance state” when she was Home Secretary – SNP MP Joanna Cherry told the House of Commons in August 2016 that Britain has “now gone further than any other Western democracyin terms of bulk data interception, and notes that Britain is rolling forward surveillance of its citizens at a time that countries such as the United States are rolling back (although, through the “Five Eyes” alliance, the United States already has access to British intelligence).

Legitimising existing practises

This, essentially, is nothing new. The bill discussed merely legitimises many of the mass surveillance practises which already go on in GCHQ, as revealed by Snowden in 2013. GCHQ also applied pressure furiously to keep the fact that telecom firms went “well beyond” their legal powers in the mass interception of data communication (both in the UK and overseas), and GCHQ assisted the Home Office in “press handling” following fears over legal challenges regarding the legal right to privacy in the Human Rights Act.

GCHQ has been involved in mass wiretapping, and previously tapped more than 200 undersea cables as part of its spying programme with the NSA. In fact, GCHQ launched a programme in 2009 codenamed KARMA POLICE (which they acknowledged was the “world’s biggest” operation of its kind), which recorded the browsing habits of “every visible user on the internet”, according to documents released by The Intercept in 2015: The Intercept goes on to say:

One system builds profiles showing people’s web browsing histories. Another analyzes instant messenger communications, emails, Skype calls, text messages, cellphone locations, and social media interactions. Separate programs were built to keep tabs on “suspicious” Google searches and usage of Google Maps.
The surveillance is underpinned by an opaque legal regime that has authorized GCHQ to sift through huge archives of metadata about the private phone calls, emails, and internet browsing logs of Brits, Americans, and any other citizens — all without a court order or judicial warrant.

Essentially, the IP Bill – alongside a possible repeal of the HRA, which was reaffirmed in August 2016 – would quash most fears about any possible legal issues which may exist regarding these practises, as it allows for this form of covert wiretapping by law, as well as other forms of bulk data interception – all in the name of security.

Although the IP Bill does not present anything new to the British public, and merely legitimises past overreaches by the GCHQ, it does appear to be a step in the wrong direction, considering the revelations of government surveillance by Manning, Snowden and Assange. The UK should follow suit with the US, and take measures to restrict surveillance of individual citizens, not expand it.