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15 March 2016updated 01 Jul 2021 1:29pm

Could an uncanny crowd of Theresa Mays make the public care about the Snooper’s Charter?

Using magnifying glasses, they peered at the phones of passerby. 

By Barbara Speed

On Sunday, a crowd of protesters wearing identical masks of Theresa May’s face lurked outside parliament. They held magnifying glasses and peered over the shoulders of passerby, trying to look at their phone screens.

The action’s target was the draft Investigatory Powers Bill, better known as the Snooper’s Charter, which is due for its second reading in the Commons today. Note My Vote, a website promoting public engagement with politics, organised the protest on the basis that Home Secretary Theresa May is “rushing the bill through parliament” in order to “minimise public scrutiny”. Mike Simpson, the site’s founder, said in a statement that the bill is “likely to see UK surveillance back to a time worse than that in George Orwell’s 1984”.

Of course, it’s a bit more complicated than that – well, the bill itself is, at least.  If the Snooper’s Charter took a full five years to trudge through the Commons and Lords, it still wouldn’t be fully scrutinised, since cybersecrutiny and privacy are issues so complex and new that both MPs and the public would be unlikely to get a full handle on them.

Moreover, the bill’s contents so far have been very muddled. Amid experts’ concerns about privacy and state surveillance are more bsaic worries that those drafting the bill don’t actually know much about the technology behind what they’re legislating.

The bill’s first draft asked for data from Internet Service Providers which is not collected in the form required, and was received with confusion from those within the industry. Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee has noted that the draft legislation “lacks clarity”.

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Open-Xchange, a software company, found in a recent survey that only 12 per cent of Britons believe the government has “adequately explained the impact of the Investigatory of the Investigatory Powers Bill to the UK public and presented a balanced argument for its introduction”. The poll was conducted online, out of a self-declared “internet-savvy” pool. Presumably, the proportion in the wider public is even lower.

Tomorrow’s debate will make clear whether MPs themselves have wrapped their heads around surveillance, encryption, and the concept of “internet connection records”. (Note My Vote’s protest was also pushing a feature which allows you to “vote” for or against bills on their site, and the results will be sent to MPs ahead of the debate – so perhaps you could sway an undecided MP.)

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What to look out for 

Here are some key points from the latest version of the bill (a fuller write-up here) drafted in response to 122 recommendations from peers and MPs:

  • Companies will only be required to remove encryption if it’s technically feasible. (f the current Apple v FBI case was playing out in a post-Snooper’s Charter Britain, Apple would almost certainly be legally required to break into the phone in question.) 
  • The government is still intending to collect and store our “internet connection records” for 12 months.
  • Police would now be able to access all your web records in criminal investigations – not just records for illegal websites or communications.
  • The National Crime Agency and some major police forces will be able to hack into computers from afar whenever there is a “threat to life”. This could include hacking into a microphone or camera. (There is some confusion over whether police in fact regularly do this in major criminal investigations.)

Who will go for it?

Labour has announced it will abstain from voting tomorrow, but will attempt to slow the legislation’s path later on if concerns about privacy and encryption are not met. Andy Burnham told the Times that he hopes to work with the government to improve the bill, and ensure that it starts from a “presumption of privacy”.

Joanna Cherry QC MP, the SNP’s justice spokesperson, has said that the bill would set a “dangerous precedent” and that the party will vote against the bill. The Liberal Democrats will do the same, but their combined weight will probably do little to block its progress unless a large proportion of Conservative MPs vote against May. 

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