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How Snooper Charter will affect your life

So, Investigative Power Act, commonly known as "Snooper Charter" has been signed into the British law. Quite surprisingly, most of the mainstream media were too distracted with US presidential election and the outcome of Brexit vote to give this important change in the law any significant mention. Understandably, this new law has attracted a lot of backlash. After all, the bill would give the government the power to spy on pretty much whole online communication of its citizens, something that no other government in any of democratic developed countries does.

The key points of the Investigative Power Bill are the following. The bill forces internet service providers keep log of all of their users' activities for at least 12 months and hand any data to law enforcement agencies or security services on demand. If the government feels that a particular method of encryption is too strong, they have the power to force the companies to change the encryption, so the government can gain access to the data. The government agencies can participate in so called "device interference", effectively introducing viruses to computers, tablets and mobile phones to monitor their activities; something that was previously only done by cybercriminals.

How this huge expansion of government's power is going to affect the lives of ordinary citizens is uncertain. It is definitely neither as straight-forward as "we now have a Big Brother government and no privacy" nor as "if you don't have anything to hide, you should have nothing to fear".

One of the crucial points of the bill is that the most of the government's surveillance powers that the bill has introduced can only be executed with relevant warrants and permissions in place on case-by-case basis. Therefore, although your internet service provider would store your browsing history for a year, the government will only be able to see it if one of its agencies has a good justifiable reason to have access to it. It is similar to the fact that police forces in Britain have the right to knock your door down and brake into your house, as you can see in any of the police documentary. However, they will require a warrant before they can do so.

On the other hand, critics of the bill point to the fact that there is very little accountability for the government's actions and departments concerned pretty much approve their own warrants. Therefore with the bill in place, any warrant to access personal data is less likely to be rejected on the basis that there is very little justification in place for doing the surveillance. Also, as the surveillance is done in secret from the public, it is difficult, if not impossible, for somebody from outside of the security departments to scrutiny the process. One thing to remember, however, is that British government, just like any other government, has official secrets, which are only accessible by those who have relevant clearances. The access to the secret information is granted strictly on need to know basis. Secrets can consists of absolutely anything. Perhaps, security services are officially authorised to perform actions that are illegal for the general public. We will never know, because nobody is in position to asses those. If the the existence of official secrets has not caused any visible issues within the society, there is also a possibility that neither will the government surveillance under the Snooper Charter.

The fact that some government activities are hidden from the public suggests that it is possible that most, if not all, powers that the government wanted to gain through the bill have already been exercised by the government and the bill is merely needed to make them official. This is consistent with revelations about mass surveillance made by Edward Snowden. Also, it is almost inconceivable how, without these powers, security forces and law enforcement agencies in Britain were able to foil so many terrorist plots. With police resources stretched thinly, it is very unlikely that they were simply able to place informants into every terrorist cell. If this theory is true, then very little will be changed by the bill from the perspective of an average citizen.

One important point to note, however, is that the new bill can, in theory, give the government power to make you an easy target if you perform online activities that aren't currently illegal, but become illegal at some point. Of course, if your internet history clearly shows that the last time you have performed one of such activities was before it was outlawed, nobody can prosecute your for that. However, if the government stumbles upon this information at some point, you can become a target for further surveillance. So, if you make a careless mistake in the future, you will be caught and face the consequences pretty quickly.

On the one hand, minor offences are less likely to attract the attention of law enforcement. Nobody has access to unlimited resources, so more serious crimes, like terrorism and drug trafficking, have to be prioritised. On the other hand, however, police forces in the UK have a long history of not prioritising their resources properly. For example, in Nottinghamshire, which is known to have a big problem of gang crime, so called "misogynistic activities" became a criminal offence. Effectively, a man in the county can now be arrested for cat-calling and wolf-whistling. Obviously, while "misogynistic " arrest is taking place, there are less police constables available to attend burglaries and gang stabbings. Therefore, although Investigative Power Act would probably be focused on serious criminal and national security activities, there is nothing that would stop law enforcement agencies from using it against minor offenders, simply because they are much easier to be caught.

Perhaps, the most worrying aspect of the bill is the government's ability to force the IT companies to weaken their encryption. The most dangerous part of it is not that the government will be able to read your data. Weaker encryption can be just as effectively exploited by cybercriminals, who can do real damage to your life. Luckily, this is an example of the government power that can only be executed on demand with the right warrant in place. Some law experts suggest that the whole process of forcing a particular type of encryption to be weakened would take years, which will make it irrelevant once it actually happens.

As the subject of Snooper Charter is messy, our goal was simply to present some key facts about it rather than make the decision for you on how it will affect your life. The good thing to know, however, is that, at present, there are still ways of remaining anonymous online despite the bill. Using dark web through Tor or proxies that hide your location are still available as options. So is browsing all of the web in HTTPS mode. On Mobile Tech Tracker, we have some articles about using these techniques and we post new ones on regular basis. So, if you are concerned about keeping yourself anonymous online or protecting yourself from spyware, watch this space.

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Posted on 2 Dec 2016

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