Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
10 July 2015

Whatsapp, iMessage and Snapchat could all be banned under the Snooper’s Charter

The draft bill would ban any service which encrypts messages, as Cameron makes good on his pledge to do away with private online communication. 

By Barbara Speed

Earlier this month, Theresa May was voted “villain of the year” by a collective of UK internet service providers (the ISPA). The reason? The Investigatory Powers Bill, rebranded by detractors  as the “Snooper’s Charter”, which May hopes to pass before the autumn, and which the ISPA says has not been subject to full industry consultation.

Surveillance and communications bills are complex, and it’s easy to glaze over when you hit phrases  like “telecommunications traffic” or even “industry consultation”. But read between the lines and it isn’t hard to see why the ISPA handed Theresa her horns and pitchfork last week.

The bill would force internet service providers, phone companies, and all tech firms to keep a record of users’ online activity for a year. That means voice calls, messages, search terms, and even records of the games you’ve played online.

The bill was originally intended for in the 2012-13 parliamentary session, but was blocked by Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats. One result of the Conservative majority is that Cameron and May can now expect to pass the bill relatively easily. Terrorist attacks in Tunisia and France have, in terms of the atmosphere around surveillance, presumably made the bill’s path even smoother. 

Yet what they’re really asking for is not only government access to all your communications if requested, but that companies themselves must be able to read and access everything you do and say on their service. This means, albeit indirectly, that companies unwilling to do this – i.e. companies who understand that customers deserve privacy – will be banned from operating in the UK. And there’s another reason to make messages as private as possible: once data is accessible to companies, it’s available to hackers who get hold of that company’s database, too.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

To bring this down to the level of your personal iPhone, this is not good news for Whatsapp, iMessage (Apple’s internet-based text messaging service) and Snapchat. All three “scramble”, or encrypt, messages sent between users, and all three could therefore be banned within the next several months if the bill passes.

Content from our partners
How do we secure the hybrid office?
How materials innovation can help achieve net zero and level-up the UK
Fantastic mental well-being strategies and where to find them

In January, Cameron made clear in a speech his views on surveillance: 

In our country, do we want to allow a means of communication between people which… we cannot read? My answer is no we must not.”

He fails to make any distnciton between accessing everything the public does, and pinpointing certain individuals who the government deems are a risk to public safety. It’s worth remembering Nick Clegg’s words when he blocked the original bill back in 2013:

We have every right to invade the privacy of terrorists and those we think want to do us harm, but we should not equate that with invading the privacy of every single person in the UK.

People who blithely say they are happy for their communications to be open to scrutiny because they have ‘nothing to hide’ have failed to grasp something fundamental about open democratic societies: We do not make ourselves safer by making ourselves less free.”

Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web, labelled a previous incarnation of the bill “draconian”. Sounds like a great idea, all round.