U.K. Approves Unprecedented Surveillance Powers
On November 29, 2016, a law was passed in the U.K. that dramatically expands the scope of domestic surveillance.
The Investigatory Powers Bill was approved by legislators and granted royal assent in a move that continues the transformation of the U.K. into a modern version of Orwell's ideal surveillance state.
The Investigatory Powers Bill both retroactively makes legal the spying exposed by Edward Snowden and grants sweeping powers of Internet data collection to police and government officials.
The new law was initially opposed by the Labour Party but due to internal party strife and a focus on Britain's exit from the EU, political attention and media coverage was shifted away from privacy concerns.
Political resistance soon crumbled under fairly weak concessions and it was largely ignored in the mainstream media. Now, as the UK again tightens the leash on its subjects, other nations may look to follow its example in controlling their populations.
But what changes does the law actually bring?
Internet and App Tracking
Internet service providers will be required to maintain 12 months of records on every customer that detail exactly which sites are visited when, for how long, what communications are sent and to whom as well as what applications are used on smartphones.
The government will provide funding to the companies to conduct this surveillance and retain the data. This "data retention notice", as it is called, will allow the browsing history to be both searchable and instantly accessible by police without the need for a warrant using a specialized search engine available to the government.
The government tried to defend the law by saying that it does not allow the tracking of webpages.
Instead, it tracks websites. So, whereas the records will report that an individual visited the BBC and stayed on the site for 30 minutes, it won't point to the specific article read.
But truly, the distinction is all but meaningless. For most people, so much of what we do and who we are is intimately tied to our online lives.
Imagine what can be done with full access to your browsing history. Police and government officials can view your web visits to find out your medical conditions, sexual interests, political beliefs and embarrassing habits.
The possibilities for blackmail and social control are virtually endless.
Through what is known as a "technical capability notice" the government can now demand that a tech company compromise the encryption of a customer and do so in secret and without the need for a warrant.
On the surface, this poses grave privacy concerns if it is now impossible to communicate privately over the web without fear of government snooping. But dig deeper and the danger is even greater.
If encryption is weakened for the British government, then it is also weakened against criminals and foreign actors as well.
Financial transactions, private medical data and personal information are all threatened by a State that believes it has the right to know the most intimate details of its subjects' lives.
Those caught disclosing the use of the technical capability notices or other surveillance practices will face a fine and up to 12 months in prison.
So, it is virtually assured that the technical capability notices and mass surveillance will be conducted both en masse and in secret and that it will be impossible to determine the level of invasion that has begun to take place.
Lack of Oversight
The Investigatory Powers Bill allows for rank and file police officers to access the data as well as government officials. The law does add a weak level of protection for journalists by establishing a judicial commissioner, likely a retired judge, who will need to sign off on warrants for certain targets of surveillance.
But curiously, even if the judicial commissioner denies the warrant, the police can simply declare the matter urgent and obtain the data without the warrant.
Let's also keep in mind that the surveillance of media companies will be kept secret and that there will be no mechanism to challenge it in court.
The U.K.'s National Union of Journalists released a statement a week ago, that declared: "The bill is an attack on democracy and on the public s right to know and it enables unjustified, secret, State interference in the press."
Indeed, it would seem that there is little moral high ground left to condemn China when the U.K. has now legislated surveillance this pervasive and secret.
The U.K. has grown increasingly comfortable with mass surveillance under the watchful eye of public cameras but nothing this intrusive has ever been tried in a modern democracy.
Abuse is almost a certainty and even when the government isn't actively promoting a social agenda and stifling dissent, such omnipresent surveillance has been shown to have a chilling effect on communication.
As the world watches the British government overreach yet again, it likely won't be long before other States follow their lead.
Better watch what you type into that address bar from now on.