November 12, 2015

UK Surveillance Bill – Is Big Brother Watching?

This post was written by: Patrick Macavoy

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Theresa May admitted in the House of Commons, on the 4th of October 2015, that the UK had been operating mass domestic surveillance since the ‘1984 Telecommunications Act’. The irony of course, is that ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’ is the title of George Orwell’s dystopian future novel which hinges upon the governmental surveillance of British civilians (or Airstrip One – as the book calls it).  An irony Edward Snowdown also couldn’t help but enjoy. But could this be as bad as the literary classic predicted?

Theresa May, the Home Secretary, announced new surveillance powers (known as the Draft Communications Data Bill) that will be granted to the security services and police. Said powers include the ability, without judicial authorisation, to search every UK citizen’s internet history.

The bill, nicknamed Snoopers Charter, requires web and phone companies to keep records for 12 months of every site visited by every UK citizen. This will then be freely available to various governmental bodies.

The government announced it would cover the costs of increased storage by mobile phone and internet providers, estimated at around £250 million over 10 years, to ensure prices to consumers do not rise.

Snoopers Charter does not allow government agencies to see what specific pages a person has been on, just the website. For example they could see you went onto Wikipedia, but not what page you viewed. Arguably, this is still an attack on an individual’s freedom and privacy. Sensitive information that a person might not want anyone else to know about, such as the visiting of an abortion information website, would become more public than the individual would have wanted.

Theresa May defends the bill by saying the information retrieved by phone and internet providers is “simply the modern equivalent of an itemised phone bill”.

The bill also makes explicit the obligation of phone and web companies to assist in the operation of hacking and bugging of phones/laptops and also bypassing encryption. However, these actions do need judicial approval.

The criticism around Snoopers Charter transcends simply the decrease in privacy of the general civilian; it could also not work. The premise of the increased general surveillance is to ‘catch’ criminals and terrorist. However there are various, easy, ways to get around the surveillance, such as:

  • A simple VPN (virtual private network) that channels data to a third party before entering the internet. In this way the government would not be able to track internet activities.
  • A ‘Tor’ browser, which is free for download of the internet, routes a person’s traffic by bouncing it to other Tor user’s computers around the world before emerging on the internet. Your ISP (internet service provider) will not be able to see what pages you visited, just that you used Tor.

Snoopers Charter, it could be argued, will push criminals and terrorists further underground into murkier waters making them increasingly difficult to find/track.

In conclusion; it’s a stretch to say Orwell’s novel is coming true, not least because there are still books. The proposed bill, although it is mass surveillance, is not particularly strong and the government’s power of surveillance would be limited. There are, however, people in favour of the bill and argue for increased government surveillance. In their eyes, the government is there to protect the public against criminals and terrorist, so is it not a good idea to have them able to freely monitor those who danger society? Is it not the government’s job to keep us safe?

The Bill is likely to pass under the current government; in fact it would have passed in the previous government if it weren’t for Nick Clegg’s withdrawal of support.

In the coming years Big Brother may be watching you…or more accurately; Big Brother may be watching your internet browsing history.