May’s snoopers’ charter

by Daphne Liddle

HOME Secretary Theresa May launched the rehash of her Investigatory Powers Bill last Tuesday with a few tweaks and concessions to concerns about privacy but with added powers for the police to spy on our electronic communications.

When May published the draft Bill last year it caused such concern amongst MPs on both sides of the House of Commons, and amongst the giant technology companies, that she was told to go away and think again.

Now she has come back with a Bill that is basically legalising in retrospect the mass hacking into everyone’s computer communications which was disclosed by Edwin Snowden, the whistle- blower from the United States’ National Security Agency, who is now living in exile in Russia.

And she is in a hurry to get this through Parliament before the end of the year when the existing mandate for Government mass snooping will expire, and hoping the furore over the European Union referendum will mean it does not get much close scrutiny.

The new draft is also notable for extending to the police a lot of powers that were previously only going to be given to the security services. May justifies this claiming it was an oversight that this extension was left out of the original draft.

Not all police will get these powers — just a chosen few forces — to be used in investigating serious crime, when life may be at stake, when someone goes missing or if someone’s mental health is at stake. This shows unusual concern for mental health from the Government but it opens a potentially very wide loophole.

Jim Killock from the Open Rights Group commented on the new version of the Bill: “The Home Office is treating the British public with contempt if it thinks it’s acceptable to rush a bill of this magnitude through Parliament.

“If passed, it would mean that the UK has one of the most draconian surveillance laws of any democracy with mass surveillance powers to monitor every citizen’s browsing history.”

The new Bill does include some new privacy protection to appease the critics.

The Bill will now:

  1. Require security agencies to reapply for equipment interference warrants — the power to hack computers and telephones — every three rather than five days.
  2. Guarantee that telecoms companies will only be asked to remove encryption they have fitted on devices — and only where it is “practicable”.
  3. Prevent security agencies from asking foreign countries to spy on their behalf unless they have a warrant approved by a Cabinet minister.
  4. Force the security services and police to obtain a senior judge’s permission before accessing communications data to identify a journalist’s source.
  5. Set out “strict codes of practice” detailing why the powers in the Bill will be used and why they are needed.

But the first point — five days to three days —refers to urgent warrants, not general hacking warrants, which last six months.

The second point relates to May demanding something the technology companies cannot do. When internet users set their own encryption codes only the user and the receiver of the message will know that code — the servers do not have it.

Such a power would also undermine these servers because users would no longer trust them and they would lose customers en masse.

There is also grave concern that journalists are still being treated as potential terrorists.

The head of the Metropolitan police technical unit, Detective Supt Paul Hudson, said hacking powers were used “in the majority of serious crime cases” but refused to give further details in a public forum.

He also acknowledged that legalised hacking now allows a third party to take remote control of a phone’s camera or microphone to record video and conversations taking place.

And the Bill will still require the technology companies to store all the data on all our emails and internet browsing for more than two years. They claim only to be interested in whom we are communicating with rather than the content of the communications but few believe them.

And of course it is the threat of terrorism that is being used to justify the whole Bill — even though it will be applied in a number of other circumstances.

All progressive political activists would be well advised to assume that whatever hacking and surveillance can happen is happening and to be cautious with all electronic communications. But we must not allow this to prevent us organising and communicating. We must not be intimidated by these threats but must defy them. The more of us who stand up to them the harder it is for them to victimise individuals.