January 9, 2017 | by Renate Samson Print

Intelligence agencies and police in the United Kingdom have been secretly using unauthorized techniques to eradicate what they defined as online “safe spaces,” where criminals, terrorists, and paedophiles are believed to hide. In 2015, the U.K. government proposed legislation to make these techniques lawful, and ultimately passed the Investigatory Powers Act in December. Beginning on Jan. 1, all U.K. citizens are now subject to monitoring by the state in ways usually considered the preserve of dystopian science fiction or undemocratic totalitarian regimes.

On and offline data on each and every one of us is now acquired, retained, and analysed with the flick of a ministerial pen. It is now legal for U.K. police and intelligence agencies to hack devices and systems in order to investigate or pre-empt crime or terrorism. Telecommunications companies are now required by law to retain a list of every single website their customers visit and make the data available for investigation when asked.

Intelligence agencies can now lawfully create personal datasets on every UK citizen, whether living or dead, to enable them to “join the dots” on people with greater ease. In possibly the most far-reaching move of all, the law now requires U.K. tech businesses to build backdoors into their systems and break or weaken encryption whenever the government demands it.

Whether we are subjects of interest or not; who we are, where we go, who we know, and what we do both online and offline is now fair game for lawful surveillance.

Big Brother Watch has spent the last year campaigning to raise awareness of the act amongst the general public. In order to try and improve the act, we worked closely with members of Parliament to try and ensure a more measured approach was taken.

We argued that bulk surveillance would impact the innocent and that surveillance should only be targeted on those known to be involved in the execution or planning of illegal activity. We called for warrants to be jointly authorised by a minister and judicial commissioner, to ensure independent oversight and scrutiny. We called for a requirement that innocent people who have been subjected to surveillance be informed and given the right to seek redress.

The odds, however, were stacked against us. Any desire to challenge the proposals was outweighed by fear that any concessions, no matter how moderate, would reduce national security. “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear” remained the go-to refrain directed at anyone questioning the act.

This is where the problem lies. Now that we are digital by default, living every aspect of our day-to-day lives online, it isn’t a negative act to hide your online activity, it is a positive and sensible way of staying safe.

Eradicating “safe spaces,” therefore, is not a way of making us more secure, but a way of making us more vulnerable. Encryption, for example, enables us to bank securely, share business strategies, and entrust our personal and sensitive data to loved ones, doctors, lawyers, and commercial organisations. Furthermore, enabling “safe space” allows nation-states to protect infrastructure, systems, networks, and communications from breach, hack, cyber-crime, and cyber warfare. This act may just throw those necessary capabilities into a spin.

Although these arguments are only beginning to surface, questions about the lawfulness of the act is already in full swing. Just before Christmas, the European Court of Justice ruled on a case brought by two senior members of Parliament who argued that the bulk retention of communications is illegal.

When the government published its proposals, Theresa May, then home secretary and now prime minister, declared the bill to be “world leading.” If world-leading legislation is deemed unlawful within weeks of being passed, something is clearly wrong. The Investigatory Powers Act may be championed as the blueprint for achieving improved security via increased surveillance, but early signs indicate that what may be hailed as the problem-solver of today could really be the arbiter of greater problems tomorrow.

Renate Samson portrait
Renate Samson has been the chief executive of Big Brother Watch since November 2014. Since joining, she has overseen the organization’s work on the Investigatory Powers Bill, data sharing, big data, surveillance cameras, and issues regarding the Internet of things. She speaks regularly about these subjects and more at conferences, on TV, radio, and in the press. Learn More about Renate Samson >