The Snoopers’ Charter is a completely disproportionate infringement on privacy. What is worse, however, is that it is passing with little opposition and this sets an extremely dangerous precedent.
The Investigatory Powers Bill has just been passed; therefore the government will now see a huge increase in its mass surveillance capacity and ability to collect data. For the sake of security and protection, it could be argued that sacrificing a small amount of privacy is worth the added security. Yet the problem with this bill is one of disproportionality; the reduction in privacy is not nearly worth any gain in security. The problem lies in the very purpose of this bill.
Confusingly, the “Investigatory Powers” Bill is not so much aimed at increasing the government’s investigatory powers, but rather mass data collection. The bill would require internet service providers to retain internet users’ “connection records” for up to a year (what exactly this means has not been made clear in the slightest). This data could be accessed by the police and the government without a warrant, and the Investigatory Powers Bill would allow UK intelligence agencies themselves to store data in bulk. Internet service providers will be legally obliged to support the government in assisting with the interception of data, and realistically this means providing a “backdoor” into their data.
The rest of the bill is aimed at increasing the government’s surveillance capacity, but overall, the bill is centred on making the access and retrieval of data much more efficient. This is where the problem lies. Mass data collection in itself does not increase the capacity for the government to actually find threats. In boasting 20 per cent of the world’s CCTV cameras, the UK government already has highly extensive powers regarding mass surveillance. Not only do we have a globally leading intelligence service, we also have a closely knit service to the most advanced intelligence service in the world, the NSA, and highly advanced global cooperation through Five Eyes. Surveillance has never been an issue in which the UK government has been lacking.
What mass data collection does is make it easier for the government to have data on a suspect they are already spying on and consequently convict them. Blanket data collection would mean that if there was a known threat found out through the government’s extensive surveillance powers, it would be easier to have data on said person. Though anyone who is a threat, and suspected to be a threat, would see their data collected via government surveillance anyway. Mass data collection does not increase the government’s ability to find threats; it merely speeds up the process of prosecution.
Since the 7/7 attacks, over forty terror plots has already been foiled. Where there have been failures they have not been in government surveillance or data, but in government action. For example, in the cases of Mohammed Emwazi, aka “Jihadi John”, or the killers of Lee Rigby, the government had already identified these people as threats and two of the 7/7 bombers were already under surveillance. This is why the issue of proportionality matters. The powers given to the government in data collection are extensive, yet they are not a large step forward in terms of security. We sacrifice a large amount of privacy to increase efficiency where the major problems in our intelligence services do not lie.
Privacy is highly important. It is a limit on the power of the government; it allows us to express fringe ideas without fear of prosecution and maintain a level of trust between us and our government. Knowing the government could have easy access to your data breeds a sense of conformity and self-censorship. Privacy underpins our freedom of expression, association and assembly. Not only does the Snoopers’ Charter therefore present a disproportionate compromise (losing a large amount of privacy for a slight gain in the efficiency of our intelligence services) but for the bill to erode our privacy in this way, and go as unopposed and hidden as it has been, sets a dangerous precedent.
With the Conservative Party having voted for it and Labour abstaining, opposition to the government was almost non-existent. Any infringement of privacy and liberty should be met with scrutiny to prevent abuses of government power. Where the government is so easily able to increase its own power, there should be some measure of opposition, or at least examination from the media or other political parties. Yet with Labour having spent the last couple of months undergoing a leadership election, a Conservative Party highly likely to dominate at the next general election and issues such as Brexit dominating the media, little scrutiny of the Snoopers’ Charter ever took place and the Conservative Party did not worry about oversight.
The government has now furtively limited the privacy of British people without consequences. There is a clear danger if the government is able to increase its own powers in such a way. As the threat to our national security seemingly increases, such as increased opposition to the west from Russia for example, this could justify many more policies of a totalitarian nature. The passing of the Investigatory Powers Bill only incentivises governments to pass further policies which could reduce our freedoms, our privacy and give further power to the government.
The lack of opposition to the Snooper’s Charter only reduces the pressure of imposing controversial policies and with the Tories attempting to replace the Human Rights Act, there is no telling what rights we may risk losing in the future. Not only is the Investigatory Powers Bill an awful agreement now, but with the government able to pass it with so little oversight or criticism, it pave the way for much worse in the future.