Two years after Edward Snowden’s revelations, which included details about the U.K. government’s own blanket surveillance operations, authorities are champing at the bit to update laws on what data spies and police can access — and under what circumstances.
Hailed by the Home Secretary Teresa May as “world-leading“ legislation that balances security and privacy, the Investigatory Powers Bill, dubbed the “Snoopers Charter,” has long-been rumoured to be a sinister mandate for mass surveillance that chills free speech.
The U.K. has rapidly expanded its surveillance capabilities over recent years. With the Investigatory Powers Bill, Britain has sought to legitimise surveillance that many governments conduct covertly.
In Tuesday’s publication of the re-drafted bill, May expanded the number of situations in which the powers can be used. The increase in powers came in spite of heavy scrutiny and criticism from pressure groups and parliamentary committees.
One of the new provisions allows police forces to access individuals’ internet history and hack into laptops and phones, under certain conditions. According to the Guardian, the bill dictates that U.K. security services will only extend remote computer hacking ‘privileges’ to major police forces in cases involving a threat to life, missing persons, or “damage to somebody’s mental health.”
Tweaks to the original draft include stronger protections for journalists and lawyers — codes of practice specifying how the powers will be used — and the use of a “double-lock” authorisation for use of the most intrusive surveillance methods.
In spite of these alleged safeguards, criticism of the bill remains widespread. Lord Strasburger, a Liberal Democrat and member of the scrutiny committee, rebuked Tuesday’s publication. “The Home Office just doesn’t do privacy. It does security and ever more intrusive powers they claim will make us safer, but not privacy,” he said. “The fact that they see simply changing the name of one section to include the word ‘privacy’ as addressing the fundamental concerns about privacy protections in this bill is breath-taking.”
Minor Botox has not fixed this bill. Government must return to the drawing board and give this vital, complex task appropriate time. Anything else would show dangerous contempt for parliament, democracy and our country’s security.
Eric King, director of Don’t Spy On Us, a coalition of organisations that defend privacy, free expression, and digital rights in the U.K. and Europe, also raised pointed concerns about the latest version of the bill.
“Rather than a full redraft, we’ve been given cosmetic tweaks to a heavily criticised, deeply intrusive bill,” he said.
Reshuffling safeguards without meaningfully improving protections, authorisations or oversight does nothing to address widespread concerns about mass surveillance. The unsettling absence of a robust, technical, detailed evaluation of those bulk powers means the case still hasn’t been made, and parliament won’t have the information it needs to do its job.
He said more than 100 experts have raised concerns about the bill, and “the government must think again.”
Don’t Spy On Us is calling for new legislation that meaningfully seeks to hold elected representatives accountable — as well as the government at large. Find out more about the campaign here.
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