The Snooper’s Charter must be repealed

Snooper's Charter

The Snooper’s Charter was passed with very little resistance, a sad incitement of illiberal Britain. The Bill will make the UK the only European or Commonwealth country to retain records of every citizen’s internet browsing history

When Apple refused to unlock the iPhone of one of the San Bernadino shooters, an alarm was clearly triggered in Theresa May’s brain. In response, she quickly drafted changes to the Snooper’s Charter which now force private companies to retain and hand over the information of the British public if asked to do so.

The charter has now become the most authoritarian Bill in the west, violating the privacy of the British public in a way that even some authoritarian countries haven’t done, and will certainly see Britain slip down the human freedom index. The only amendment proposed by MP’s has been to exempt themselves from the charter’s draconian principles.

The Bill contains many troubling clauses and passages, the full extent of which we may not fully understand until they are used in action. For example, section 217 states that communication companies must inform the government in advance of any new products and services that will be released, and must allow the government the right to demand ‘technical’ changes. Translated from Orwellian newspeak to mean something like free governmental bypasses and backdoors.

Call histories, browsing history, encryption and the ability to remain anonymous have now become the interest of the government. There are still questions regarding the use of that information once in the hands of the government, but it’s likely they will remain unanswered until the full scale of the Bill is revealed and the fine print is understood fully. For example, how could confidential information be used when dealing with the government and given the underhand ability of recent Conservative governments, are there absolute assurances that said confidential information will not end up in the hands of insurance companies and the like?

The Bill has faced little opposition as it has passed smoothly through the halls of government to where we currently stand: Amber Rudd praising the one of the most authoritarian Bills in British history.

The primary stated use of the Snooper’s Charter has been to counter the ever-growing and increasingly mobile world of modern terrorism, but this argument is nothing more than a platitude. It would be like banning all cartoonists under a counter-terrorism motive. After all, the wrong expression of freedom may ‘induce’ terrorism and therefore the solution must be the eradicate the field altogether.

The government now retains the ability to spy on the private information of citizens due to the actions of a tiny minority. While some may argue along the lines of, “Well if you have nothing to hide, you surely have nothing to fear?” I would ask in return, “Would you give your house keys to the authorities to freely enter in and out of your house to ‘check-up’ on you?” The answer is clearly no. The Snooper’s Charter doesn’t create a physical presence in the same way a security guard or police officer entering each and every house at will would, and so we retain the belief that it perhaps isn’t as bad as it sounds.

This Bill is, put analogously, a cybernetic officer entering in and out of our private property. The fact that the dispute between the FBI and Apple made front page news in America, yet this far more intrusive Bill has passed without so much as a peep is a sad reflection of the direction of travel Britain is heading in.

Running in the Libertarian primaries before the American election, tech entrepreneur John McAfee made a point of highlighting the inefficiencies of American cybersecurity. In response to why he felt America is at risk from Chinese cyberattacks, he highlighted developing technologies that allowed the Chinese to spy on patterns, rather than individual conversations, and how easily these patterns can be used to devise intentions.

In relation to the UK, a similar system could be introduced in order to maintain surveillance of individuals perceived to be a risk or on a watch list, while maintaining and conserving the freedoms of the populace at large. Such a system would revolve around the following.

While observing high risk individuals, the government keeps a record of:

  • Who is making a call
  • Whom they are calling
  • What is the time of the call
  • What is the duration of the call
  • What are the locations of the parties

From these patterns alone, and to use McAfee’s written example for Business Insider, we could come to the following conclusion:

Let’s assume that we are able to monitor the phones of a husband and wife and the only information we have are the phones’ locations, whether a call is being placed, and the time and duration of the call… Let’s say that with regularity, the husband places a call whenever the wife is out of hearing range and quickly hangs up just before the wife returns to hearing range. This pattern might be sufficient information to assume with a high probability that the husband is having an affair, or possibly has a gambling problem. If at this point a single additional data point is added — the number being called — and it is discovered to be the wife of a neighbor, or a gambling parlor, then it’s clearly time for a sit-down.”

In this admittedly oversimplified example, the ability to highlight patterns rather than spy on the personal phone call history could be suggestive of the most likely conclusion. A similar system could be implemented when addressing cybersecurity.

When a high-risk individual visits a site with known ties to extreme elements or content, and depending on the locations and whether the visits come from a multitude of different locations or internet cafes, a likely conclusion could be that said individual is attempting to avoid attracting attention, and security forces can decide how to proceed from there. While these examples are obviously oversimplified and gloss over a variety of other factors, it highlights the ability of new technologies to combat cyberterrorism, while maintaining freedom for the public.

The Snooper’s Charter is a travesty and should be repealed immediately. In an age of technological enlightenment, governments future and present must look to modern alternatives and must embrace modern technologies to deal with age-old problems.

Surveillance of patterns, rather than studying of personal information, preserves the freedom of the overwhelming majority, and to some extent even the target. While change will come generationally, more effort should be made by the current government, including the apparently delighted Amber Rudd, to embrace new and better ways of addressing this issue rather than the draconian, illiberal and concerning ways that this current government is currently addressing it.

Repeal the Snooper’s Charter and adopt an alternative.

Sign the petition to Repeal the Investigatory Powers Act

Elliot is an English student studying in Southampton.Follow him on Twitter: @Elliott_Fudge

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The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty