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December 3, 2016

Surveilled society


December 3, 2016

The Investigatory Powers Act will come into force at the start of 2017, and will cement ten years of illegal surveillance into law. It includes state powers to intercept bulk communications and collect vast amounts of communications data and content. The security and law enforcement agencies - including government organisations such as HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs) - can hack into devices of people in the UK.

Under this law, the intelligence agencies can use bulk hacking powers to hack devices and networks outside the UK. They can also access and analyse entire databases, whether they are held by private companies          or public organisations - even though they have admitted that most people on them will not be suspected of any crimes.

One of the new and most intrusive powers is that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) can be compelled to collect a record of our web browsing activity and this can be accessed by the police and 48 government departments, including the Food Standards Agency and the HMRC.

When Edward Snowden revealed the massive scale of US and UK surveillance, many people thought it would be a chance to revise the law and constrain the blanket collection of data from people who were not suspected of criminal activity.

Not a bit of it. The government started by saying it would ‘neither confirm nor deny’ anything. It would make repeated claims that everything was done lawfully and would refuse to comment further, except to question Edward Snowden’s motives.

Months of revelations showed that the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) had hacking powers, were prepared to take over foreign ISPs, were collecting 30 percent of UK traffic to the US; were breaking into Google’s private cable networks and stealing information in bulk; and even experimented in collecting webcam traffic, until they found that a large proportion of the image captures were “inappropriate”.

Parliamentary debate showed that the oversight committee had the thinnest of knowledge of what had happened. However, the obvious democratic failures did not create parliamentary or press outrage. A large section of the public has been, and remain, outraged, but somehow have never been given a chance to press their MPs on the issues.

Cases brought by Privacy International in particular revealed that hacking, bulk personal datasets and other practices revealed by Snowden were effectively illegal, on the simple basis that there was no clear legislation to permit them.

Bulk surveillance, and new police powers to use ‘bulk’ style powers to access 12 months of ‘Internet Connection Records’ finally started to create public outrage. A petition asking for repeal of the law has gained 150,000 signatures in a matter of days.

This means that parliament must consider debating the law - although it is not obliged to do so and may say that there has been sufficient debate already. It should take the time to debate, not least because there are court judgements due which may force a rethink; parliament should consider whether changes may be needed.

All may not be lost, therefore. These are troubled times, and it is often hard to keep people’s attention on complex matters such as surveillance. But the dangers make it all the more important, rather than less.


The article has been excerpted from: ‘The IP Act: UK’s most extreme surveillance law’. Courtesy:


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