Today, Theresa May has outlined the ‘Investigatory Powers Bill’ regarding data retention and new ways of improving the “outdated” methods authorities currently use to investigate our behaviour online. In the immediate moments after May’s revised proposal, support seems to be far greater than it was in her previous attempt to introduce legislation in this area, through the ‘Draft Communications Data Bill’ in 2012, or as it came to be aptly nicknamed, the ‘Snooper’s Charter’.
However, I intend to argue that this apparently “much-improved bill” (according to Nick Clegg) may not be as much of an improvement as it seems and that there is still a danger this legislation can far too easily be moulded into a tool for mass surveillance, rather than providing a fair balance between national security and personal privacy.
But, first I’ll explain what exactly this bill is and what May was talking about…
Theresa May has long been promoting the introduction of such legislation, because;
The task of law enforcement and the security and intelligence agencies has become vastly more demanding in this digital age.”
Simply, she has argued that due to the speed that technology is advancing at, authorities have been left behind in their methods to properly protect us from the apparently infinite number of dangers we face daily. Therefore, she feels it is time for them to move with the time and introduce legislation which makes it legal for such authorities to look at and store our search history on the web, to make sure we aren’t coordinating crimes with one another.
Now, such legislation is not totally unusual. In fact, authorities have the power to look at all of our telecommunication usage as they please already. There are a number of laws in place to allow people to look into our communication methods, which are used to tackle crime and help find missing people for example. The controversy with this most recent proposal stems from when May introduced the previous bill in 2012, because many felt that the powers it suggested allowing interfered far too much with our right to privacy under the Human Rights Act 1998. This criticism led to the Liberal Democrats rejecting the proposal and it therefore wasn’t adopted as law.
May claims that she has taken said criticism on board when drafting the most recent bill, by omitting “the more controversial” parts of that bill, as well as introducing more checks on the use of the powers proposed. For example, if this Bill were to pass through the necessary process and become law, a Committee of judges would be put in place to monitor the use of these surveillance powers, as well as enabling the courts to block their use if they deem such usage unnecessary/disproportionate.
Unfortunately, I feel these protections are not necessarily enough to avoid the disproportionate encroachment of our privacy that it could set the foundations for and my reasons for this are as follows.
Firstly, I am far too sceptical of authorities to simply believe that because regulation has been discussed further than before, we should believe that mass surveillance is not a possibility and this is no longer a ‘Snooper’s Charter’. We have all seen those in positions of power bend and break the rules away from the defence regulation supplies, to better place themselves and/or to avoid criminal and moral conviction for their actions. I do agree that the further discussion of regulation in relation to this Bill was totally necessary and carried out in a more positive manner than I expected it to be. Furthermore, the promise of judicial, independent and public scrutiny over decisions to analyse data, as well as many other checks proposed about the proper usage of the data retained is certainly a positive step towards taking our right to privacy seriously.
Nonetheless, the idea that people who have deceived us on multiple occasions before, having access to data that does not concern them, nor the security of our country and its people, does not leave me envisaging a safer country, where I am also still free to enjoy privacy. Additionally, they have included yet another ‘exception clause’ which means the Home Secretary can allow such data to be accessed without judicial authority “in urgent situations”, but doesn’t identify what constitutes an urgent situation. Nor is there any mention of whether or not the public will always be informed about these decisions or the outcomes. There is no doubt that more detail will be provided, but the omissions provided today certainly lead me to question why this should be regarded as a vastly improved version of the Snooper’s Charter.
Secondly, I believe the idea of legalising such powers could cause people to neglect the moral consequences of such actions. For example, the recent phone hacking scandal arose, because it was leaked that media companies had hacked, tapped and swept up information on people who were in the news for a variety of reasons, without any prior permission or legitimate reason to do so. Now, I do not mean to compare the actions of these companies to what May is proposing, but I do fear that legalising the hacking, tapping and sweeping up of people’s private information could reduce the impact of the moral lessons we all learned through the scandal above coming to our attention. If we accept this Bill and agree that it can’t be used for snooping, I feel we are accepting that the unnecessary collection of data is acceptable in the interests of security. We simply ignore the fact that this proposed mass collection of data can potentially have huge implications on the scope of privacy we currently obtain and no longer deem it necessary to question what in our behaviour has led officials to monitor our actions – we simply agree that, in the face of imminent terrorism, everyone has to be watched, whether that is covertly or overtly.
Simply, this is why I disagree with Andy Burnham, who claimed:
This is neither a snooper’s charter nor a plan for mass surveillance.
Defining the Investigatory Powers Bill as a Snooper’s Charter to me, means it is a potential piece of legislation that possesses the ability to allow government officials and other authorities, to ‘snoop’ around and completely ignore the right to privacy many worked so hard to implement, to protect our liberty. As I have already mentioned, the discussion about the Bill suggests a move in the right direction, by including proposals for more intense regulation of the usage of these new powers for example. But, I believe this cannot be deemed an acceptable position for the ‘balance’ between privacy and security to be struck. The opportunities it offers to ignore such a balance and simply carry out the mass surveillance that Burnham denies are too real and accessible judging by past behaviour and the lack of precision in the safeguards May has suggested.