Mass surveillance by another name
The Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, introduced by the UK government on Wednesday, threatens to institutionalise some highly intrusive surveillance powers, the likes of which the UK has never seen before. This flies in the face of the UK’s international human rights legal obligations to protect peoples’ rights to privacy, freedom of expression, and others.
While we welcome the government’s commitment to proper public and parliamentary scrutiny of this legislation, which is something that has been missing with previous Bills, and the stated attempt to bring clarity to the whole area, we have serious reservations about the content of the draft IP Bill.
The excessive procedural detail, apparent multiple complex layers of authorisation, and use of linguistic trompe l'oeils such as “equipment interference” (apparently nothing to do with hacking) and “bulk interception” (nothing like mass surveillance) in this Bill could easily distract readers of the legislation from appreciating the true nature of the powers contained therein. But make no mistake, currently this Bill is about surveillance and hacking on a mass scale.
Blanket, indiscriminate interception and retention of people's communications by any other name is still mass surveillance and it can never be proportionate. If adopted in its current form, the IP Bill will authorise the intelligence services to intercept, in bulk, all email, text and internet communications in and out of the UK; demand phone and internet companies hand over entire databases full of records about what their customers do online and on their phones; acquire databases of other personal information from other companies and government departments, and hack into whole networks and millions of smartphones consecutively, rummaging through individuals’ most private thoughts and records.
Such mass surveillance activities would be triggered without there being any suspicion of wrongdoing on any particular person’s part, and would be authorised by a Minister. The role of “judicial commissioners” – proposed by the government as a means to introduce a safeguard into the process – is something we’ll want to look at further to ensure it doesn’t amount to little more than a rubber stamp. It’s essential that, if established, this post will be tasked with challenging the merits of the Minister’s decision and examining the facts on which it was based.
The Bill contains other concerning provisions as well, including powers for police and intelligence agencies to hack into the phones and computers of people in the UK without establishing any reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing, and to require telecommunications providers to retain records of every website visited by every person in Britain for up to one year.
While the Home Secretary was quick to announce that the Bill won’t stop people using encryption to secure their communications, the Bill also includes powers for the Secretary of State to order companies to remove “electronic protections”, undeniably a reference to anti-encryption measures.
In its current form this Bill would effectively legalise mass surveillance, which by definition inherently fails the test of proportionality required by international human rights laws that the UK government must adhere to.
These proposed surveillance powers would adversely affect the human rights of everyone using digital communications, and could put the UK government's compliance with international law in disarray. It is time for the UK to call these bulk powers what they really are – mass surveillance – and amend them to bring them into compliance with human rights.
Indiscriminate mass surveillance invades all of our human rights. While targeted information-collecting, with proper judicial review, and based on reasonable suspicion, is above board and necessary, indiscriminate intrusion into each of our personal lives can never be a necessary and proportionate means to obtain information.
The government must now enter into genuine listening mode and amend the Bill so it protects all of us…this is about our rights and our security, after all.
Carly Nyst is an Advisor to Amnesty's Technology and Human Rights team
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.