Last week, the United Kingdom (UK) passed new legislation called The Investigatory Powers Act
(aka Snoopers Charter). The bill was introduced about a year ago, signed into law on the 29th
, and has broad sweeping surveillance powers for the UK government. In this blog, I will review ….
The Law and its Impact
Under its legislation, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in the UK must keep complete records of every single website (by URL, not content) a customer visits. Yes, every single one. The data will be available under the premise of transparency to a wide variety of agencies – from the Departments of Work and Pensions to the Food Standards Agency – without a warrant (45 different agencies in total including some in Ireland).
In addition, it is not just a user’s Internet surfing habits that are being documented; UK Surveillance agencies will also be granted new authority to force companies to hack into phones and collect additional information on individuals all in the name of policing electronic communications. This will require a warrant however.
The data itself must be kept for 12 months and places an enormous burden on ISP’s to store, backup, and retrieve all the information at any given time. For non-UK citizens that use local ISPs while visiting, their information is recorded as well leaving virtually no person and their electronic habits undiscovered while on the Queen’s soil.
Protections and Workarounds
For a democracy, this level of privacy and intelligence gathering is unprecedented and potentially a step that all nations may soon follow to counter terrorism and home grown threats. For example, China has adopted similar laws based on the initial charter. To help keep George Orwell’s 1984 from becoming a reality (or maybe even assisting with it becoming a reality based on your perception of the law), the UK has created an Investigatory Powers Commission (IPC) to manage the authority of the Act in conjunction with existing agencies and Parliament to ensure it is not abused or misused. The legislation itself is heavy in checks and balances but still has caused an enormous stir among privacy advocates in the UK.
For professionals in the UK like journalists, lawyers, and doctors where privacy is essential and protected by other laws, new safeguards will be implemented to ensure their data is properly filtered, sanitized, or even not collected to protect their rights. The method to perform this scrubbing is still to be determined and no technology recommendations have been secured yet to ensure their information is not improperly distributed as well. In addition, it has already been demonstrated that Internet Proxy Servers and Private VPN’s can circumvent all the monitoring granted by the legislation. This essentially makes it a moot point for anyone looking to use the internet for secure communications and surfing since only URL destinations are being gathered and stored.
How it Compares to Laws in the United States
For my colleagues, friends, journalists, and peers monitoring this legislation, there is one thing that is not obviously clear; in the United States, we are already doing this. There is nothing overly new regarding this legislation. The United Kingdom has just been one of the first countries to put it into law far beyond the USA Patriot Act, and publically explain how the government will monitor Internet and mobile usage, and what will be done with the data. The United States National Security Agency (NSA) has allegedly been doing this for years and with a warrant, your browser history from your computer, text messages from your phone (or carrier) can be retrieved, and even call history legally be documented to make a case against you even by local police.
The difference with The Investigatory Powers Act is that the UK has formalized the process to collect and analyze the information in bulk without a warrant in the name of safety and protection. The data has always been available for collection. In the United States we do not centrally process the information and if a warrant is needed, law enforcement most go collect it from every potential source available, from a phone to ISP to caching servers within a business. Unlocking a phone cannot be enforced on a company basis like recent litigation with Apple in the US. In the UK, Apple could legally be now forced to comply. That alone is the biggest and most noteworthy change.
In either case, it should come as no surprise to anyone that the data is out there already in almost every next generation economy country; just the notion that it is now being centralized and processed to protect us from the very information we have made so easily to obtain via the Internet in the first place.