Since the Investigatory Powers Act (2016) went into force last December, there have been a series of questions raised around individual privacy in the age of data retention and privacy breeches in the interest of “national security.” Along with the passing of this act was the decision of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in December 2016 which ruled that the powers invested within the UK’s surveillance legislation were too wide and did not comply with EU law. Since last December, the UK government has been unclear what it would do in response to this ruling until last week.
On 30 November, Amber Rudd announced the changes to the new Investigatory Powers Act in response to the successful legal claim brought by Labour MP Tom Watson. Privacy has become a most essential principle in everyday life with the rising encroachment into our private lives, extremely common in the current surveillance economy, cyber security and the privacy of personal information is more and more valued today than at any time throughout history. The government now claims it will undertake a consultation on “further safeguards” potentially transferring the mandate of the Investigatory Powers Act (IPA) to a new independent body to authorise communications data requests.
What does this mean for those of us who want to maintain our privacy and security of all telephonic and online communications, but who also wish to go out with our mates without being stabbed or blown up? In this age where the media tells us that terrorist threats are imminent, how can we square our freedoms and privacy with the state’s need to safeguard?
It seems to me that the very definition of “serious crime” is left purposefully vague such that the “Request Filter,” ostensibly a powerful tool for the police to investigate retained data from search engine requests, could become a potential tool of abuse. Edward Snowdon has expressed similar sentiments about the IPA given his expertise in this field. While there are those who will maintain that the dangers of extremists warrant such spying measures, many are more skeptical about the necessity that government claims to need access to our data. They are aware exactly what is at stake and how fear can be used to make laws bend to the will of politicians.
Let’s not forget how fear was used to manipulate laws that heretofore were considered untouchable. For instance, after 9/11 the US government suspended habeas corpus in its “War on Terror.” On 13 November, 2001, through Presidential Military Order, the government maintained the power to detain non-citizens suspected of connection to terrorists or terrorism and classify them as “enemy combatants.” Habeas corpus had previously ensured that every person would only be allowed to be held with charges filed against him or her and with a hearing. The U.S. government manipulated the people with the forecast of more “terrorist attacks” and manufactured fear to run roughshod over the law. And it wasn’t much better under later administrations, to include the Obama administration where such loopholes were used for targeted assassinations.
So what is at stake for the IPA as it stands under the proposed changes? First, there are many professions for which privacy is considered sacrosanct between people: journalists and their sources, doctors and their patients, and anyone working in scientific fields where privacy is paramount. But let’s just take the profession of journalism here for a moment. The IPA most definitely poses a challenge to the freedom of the press if it means that anything that journalists research and write about might be lifted from their devices and/or their computers and mobiles taken away from them for an indefinite time period.
Also of interest is that in the attempt to make us feel “safer” such laws actually make our information less safe. For instance, if served with an official notice, companies would be forced to remove encryption from their servers and even to redesign their systems in order to allow access to law enforcement, ultimately weakening the security of their clients.
The final result of such a policy is that people will be distrustful of their computer equipment simply because everyone is at risk, anyone can be hacked. There are virtually no checks and balances as proposed by Amber Rudd and this worries many analysts. Many are making comparisons to Stasi-esque forms of surveillance and others are speaking out about the threat to academic freedom that this law poses.
Mandela once stated that, “[T]o be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” We must push our MPs to look towards freedom rather than the oppressive force of fear.