On Wednesday Theresa May revealed the government’s latest plans for legal surveillance of UK citizens. Given that GCHQ already monitors thousands of e-mails a day already, it may not be clear why we need a new law, so just what is this new Investigatory Powers law, and who is it going to catch?
The law will compel Internet Service Providers to store information about what web sites you visit for a year so that government agencies can access them should they need to. Sounds sensible? There are a few flaws – first of all, the list of people who will have access is not just “spies and police”. It extends to your local council, the tax man, the Department for Work and Pensions, Department for Transport, OFCOM, the Health and Safety Executive, the Food Standards Agency, the Department for Health, the Ministry of Justice, the Ambulance Service and many more (see P213 for the full list). Think the local council won’t use it? Last year they requested access to our private communications 2,110 times, for purposes like checking on school admissions, and spying on journalists to stop them writng negative stories. So if the local council doesn’t like the look of you, they can have a good old peek in to your private life and see that in addition to the staples of BBC News, Amazon and Right Move, your household visited three gambling web sites, ten baldness cure clinics, alcoholics anonymous and some rather excellent satirical left wing blogs. And think you have nothing to fear because you are law abiding? Tory MP Richard Graham thinks the same, and he quoted Joseph Goebbels’ famous line “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing fear” to prove it.
But surely such access will need a warrant, and go before a judge to make sure it is OK? Well, no, not really. These requests can be reviewed and approved by ministers. In fact, given the volume of requests, it’s fairer to say not reviewed and simply rubber stamped. Theresa May personally approved over two thousand surveillance cases last year. Either she isn’t reviewing them very thoroughly, or she doesn’t do much else. I know what my money is on.
But at least it’s only the tenuously appropriate authorities that have access to your data, isn’t it? Well, given the extensive hack of Talk Talk last week where 157,000 customers had details, including unencrypted bank details stolen by a bunch of school kids, trusting telecoms companies to store all of your private information seems optimistic.
What about the cost of all of this? Well, the government sure aren’t going to foot the bill for spying on us. We’re going to have to pay for that ourselves. More specifically the Internet Service Providers need to pay for it, and you know who they’ll pass the cost on to. The Home Office estimated the cost at “just” £247m over a 10 year period. However, it has emerged that that cost missed out many unknowns, primarily because the government didn’t consult with the telecoms companies over it. When their costs are taken into account, the bill rises to something more like £2bn.
Still, at least all of this will help us stop terrorist attacks, won’t it? Well, no, it won’t. While this law will capture data from the average citizen, it is technically very simple to bypass. Freely available software allows you to route your internet data through anonymous servers. The most famous is the Tor project, which is a simple browser plugin to stop exactly this sort of spying. It works in the same way as VPN connections that many people use to access their office computers from home, and looks just as innocent to the authorities. All but the most stupid terrorists and criminals will spend a couple of minutes installing such software to instantly be invisible to this snooping.
So, the law does little to help national security, will cost a fortune, will allow numerous authorities to spy on people in intrusive detail, with little oversight. It’s pure evil. Mwhahaha.