Even if you trust the current government with the powers provided by the Investigatory Powers Act, or Snoopers’ Charter, it is important to ask yourself if you would trust any theoretical government with them. If UKIP leader Paul Nuttall were to somehow find himself to be Prime Minister in a few years’ time, would you want him to have such a comprehensive record of people’s online activities and, in turn, political affiliations, social sphere, and activities?
The Investigatory Powers Act, in conjunction with proposed legislation like the Digital Economy Bill (which seeks to limit what pornography can be sold online, placing it under the same standards as films released on DVD), represent a dangerous desire to control people’s activities online. Beyond the current government’s intentions, they establish an infrastructure for far more draconian intervention. The Investigatory Powers Act is likely the single most invasive piece of legislation that has successfully passed through Parliament in my lifetime. Trawling through people’s online activity without any official warrant is tantamount to searching someone’s house without a warrant; it is a hallmark of an authoritarian state and sets a worrying precedent.
Setting aside for a moment the authoritarian tendencies of the legislation, it is one of many of Theresa May’s suggested policies which are fundamentally tech illiterat – like when she suggested banning non-government encryption – something which would cripple the UK’s tech industry. By forcing ISPs to store records of the websites people visit, May has opened a dangerous opportunity for criminal activity. How bad will the damage be when one of these data stores is inevitably hacked, and the information is used against the people that the Prime Minister claims to be protecting?
Far more likely than helping to catch paedophiles, terrorists, or dark web drug dealers (few of whom will be stupid enough not to use VPNs and whom the government already has means to pursue online), this legislation will create a vulnerable record of people’s personal habits and opinions. If someone with malcontent were to get access to the information that, say, someone has been visiting a website used for cheating, they would be able to use the information to extort money. Think Black Mirror’s ‘Shut Up and Dance’, but without the necessity of receiving a virus. This potential becomes even more sinister if they were, for instance, to discover that a young person had been visiting an LGBTQ support website. It is not only the immoral, but also the vulnerable that are likely to be put in a position which encourages exploitation.
A list of the departments granted powers by the bill can be found online, and while it is far too long to list here, I’ll offer some highlights. All the expected police forces and intelligence agencies, the Metropolitan Police, the MOD, GCHQ, etc.; the Home Office; the Department of Health; the Department for Transport; HM Revenue and Customs; the DWP; the Food Standards Agency; as well as, oddly, the Welsh Ambulances Services NHS trust.
As much as I look forward to the DWP using these powers to find yet more reasons to arbitrarily impose sanctions on Job Seeker’s Allowances, such broad access to these powers fundamentally undermines the argument that they are being established for the sake of protecting the public It is deeply concerning that the public and the media have not taken a greater interest in this legislation or in the government spying revelations of recent years. Liberty is not something that can be taken overnight, it will be taken gradually and only with the tacit consent of an apathetic public.