The UK’s new web spying rules are taking shape despite the legislation governing it, the Investigatory Powers Act, having become law late last year. There is, nonetheless, much left unresolved about what this act represents both in the UK and the fomenting of similar laws with neighbouring EU powers.
For instance, the Investigatory Powers Act, also known as the Snooper’s Charter, represents a massive extension of the surveillance power of the state. It requires Internet companies to keep customers’ web traffic history for 12 months. It also gives spying agencies and police powers the ability to conduct the mass hacking of IT infrastructures, personal computers, smartphones, and any electronic device. Just a year ago, NSA-contractor/whistleblower Edward Snowden labelled this as “the most extreme surveillance in the history of western democracy. It goes further than many autocracies.” So why are the British not reacting?
And the British may not be alone for long with such legislation. The Dutch are set to have a national referendum about similar mass-surveillance legislation, after opponents of this “dragnet law,” or Sleepwet, gained enough signatures to demand a public vote. According to Dutch law, the government must hold a non-binding referendum on any issue if the country’s Voting Commission receives 300,000 signatures in request of such a vote. The campaigners of Sleepwet got over 417,000 signatures, of which the commission said 384,126 were valid. The regulator recommended in October that the referendum should take place on March 21, 2018 in order to coincide with municipal elections.
In July of this year, the Dutch senate cleared the Intelligence and Security Agencies Act, which is quite similar to the UK’s Investigatory Powers Act. It expands the government’s powers to monitor all the data which moves through the country’s internet infrastructure. This law, like the Investigatory Powers Act, would also grant the government broad device-hacking powers. This means, practically speaking, that the government would have the legal authority to hack an entire town if it so chooses.
The organizers of Sleepwet claim that they are not trying to abolish the law, but insist that there needs to be a legal basis for any targeted surveillance and they worry about the infringement of the basic rights to privacy and security. As in the UK, one of the major concerns is the “untargeted interception of cable traffic and automated analysis of that data, which is basically mass surveillance,” according to Nina Boelsums, one of the five university students who initiated the call for a referendum. She also questions the hacking of third parties, which she calls “an incentive for the intelligence agencies to collect zero-day vulnerabilities,” adding, “Security experts are worried that that will actually make us less secure.”
What this also means is that data from all personal social media accounts, banking details, marketing services, social media, and personal information (ie. sexual preferences, where your children go to school, etc) will be accessible to the government. Like Sleepwet in the Netherlands, Liberty in the United Kingdom received more than 200,000 signatures on a petition calling for the repeal of the Investigatory Powers Act after it became law last year. Liberty has launched a legal challenge against the British government and this summer received the go-ahead from the High Court to challenge part of the Government’s extreme mass surveillance regime with a judicial review of the Investigatory Powers Act.
While groups like Amnesty International have called to end such legislation in the UK, Amnesty’s call against government spying has been equally as active in the Netherlands where the referendum was welcomed as a victory, albeit temporary, over the mass surveillance of people who pose no threat to national security. The outcomes of Liberty’s lawsuit in the UK and Sleepwet’s referendum in the Netherlands are yet to be seen. But it will take public advocacy and local activism if we are to protect the basic rights of privacy and freedom from surveillance.