Three times, Theresa May said the Investigatory Powers Bill was ‘world leading’ when she presented the UK’s new surveillance law to the House of Commons in November. Just over a month later, she was proved right – when China passed a much-criticised surveillance law last December, the Chinese Government said it was inspired by UK and US legislation.
Today, the Don’t Spy on Us coalition has launched an advertising campaign that takes a satirical look at how other authoritarian regimes might look at this world-leading legislation. Should countries like Russia, North Korea or Zimbabwe pass illiberal surveillance laws, will Britain be in a position to criticise them?
As our campaign notes, the powers contained in the IP Bill are more suited to a dictatorship than a democracy, giving the state sweeping powers to intrude into the private lives of ordinary citizens who are not under suspicion of any crime. If the Bill passes through Parliament in its current state, the UK will have gone further than any other democracy anywhere on earth when it comes to the state’s surveillance powers.
These powers have been well-documented. What few people realise, however, is that the Bill is not just a “catching up” with powers that evolved in secret over the last decade. In fact, the government is using the bill to extend its powers, especially for ordinary police and law enforcement. Your Internet Service Provider will be forced to keep a record of the websites you visit and the apps you use, storing this information for a year – whether or not you are suspected of a crime. The powers in the Bill to gain access to Internet and phone records are not limited to the police but given in many cases to government departments, including the Department of Health, DWP and HMRC.
The powers for security services go even further, in ways that lack balance and sufficient restraints, and into areas which are often hard to understand or justify. They are already being granted the ability to harvest more or less anything from Internet cables, without suspicion. These powers of suspicionless surveillance are now called “bulk” powers. For instance, personal information that private or public companies, from DVLA to Tesco, hold about you can be accessed and analysed by the security services – whether or not you are suspected of a crime.
The security services can hack your devices – whether or not… well, you get the picture. The safeguards applied to GCHQ and the secret services also seem weak. Should your organisation be served with a warrant ordering you to hack your customers or weaken your security, it will be illegal to tell a journalist even if you believe there is a public interest in doing so.
So are we saying that the UK is on a path to becoming like North Korea or Russia? Clearly, this is not the case. Nor would we deny that our police and security services need surveillance powers to combat terrorism and serious crime. But the question is whether it is necessary or acceptable for the entire UK population to be put under surveillance to achieve these ends. Can we blithely assert – just weeks after the Hillsborough inquest – that the state’s agencies will never abuse power or make mistakes?
MPs are expected to vote on the IP Bill in just a few weeks’ time, while political debate remains dominated by the EU referendum. From the off, the Home Office has signalled that it will push this Bill through at all costs. But as David Cameron said in 2009: “If we want to stop the state controlling us, we must confront this surveillance state.”
Jim Killock is executive director of Open Rights Group