Britain's sweeping surveillance powers act raises concerns for human rights activists

To Silkie Carlo, the sweeping surveillance powers British legislators have voted to grant intelligence agencies and police make no sense in a democracy.

Carlo and other civil liberty and human rights advocates oppose new rules that essentially allow authorities to spy and hack into communications of ordinary citizens.

“It defies common sense,” said Carlo, policy officer at human rights organization Liberty. “We are very, very resolutely in opposition to mass surveillance, which can never be considered proportionate or necessary in a democracy.”

But after a year of debate, the Investigatory Powers Bill was approved by Parliament last week and is expected to be ratified into law by the end of the year. 

The bill includes measures that will force Internet and phone companies to keep a record of the complete Web browsing history of British citizens for up to 12 months, in case they need to be accessed by government agencies.

It also allows the government to obtain “bulk personal data sets,” even if most of the individuals are not suspected of any wrongdoing.

Civil liberty and human rights groups expressed profound disappointment that the bill passed without tougher opposition, but said their battle was far from over. Carlo said Liberty was “gearing up” for a fight and intends to mount a legal challenge.

“It is certainly ripe for challenging,” she said. 

The bill -- colloquially known as the Snooper's Charter -- was introduced by Prime Minister Theresa May in November 2015, when she was home secretary.

It came after Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who revealed details about U.S. electronic surveillance programs, had disclosed the staggering scale of mass surveillance carried out between Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters, known as GCHQ, and the NSA. 

Government officials argue that the surveillance powers are necessary to keep Britain safe during a time of heightened security, terrorist attacks and cyberwarfare. Observers also say the act legalizes tactics law enforcement and security agencies have used for years without full disclosure to the public.

But opponents say that the bill not only turned all those existing surveillance measures into law, but extended them even further.

“It’s unprecedented in the UK, and any democracy,” said Pam Cowburn, communications director at the privacy campaign organization Open Rights Group. 

In essence, the bill will force Internet and phone companies to keep records of all users for up to a year, including every website visited and every phone call made, including duration, date and time.

Such surveillance does not have to be targeted or based on any reasonable suspicion and this personal data can be accessed without a warrant in some instances.

Authorities will need a warrant to access data about a journalist’s source, but opponents are still gravely concerned that the far-reaching nature of this bill will discourage whistle-blowing.

Some tech companies, including Apple and Twitter, voiced their opposition to the bill, which they said could force them to make changes to their encryption services that many say could put data more at risk. 

“Encryption keeps us safe online. This bill weakens that,” said Renate Samson, chief executive of civil liberties group Big Brother Watch. “When a company has more than 10,000 users, the  [British government] can ask them to build capacity to see what people are doing on there…. Long term, with crime increasingly happening online, and cyber crime becoming more of an issue, the ability of any law to create vulnerability in the online world actually keeps us less safe.”

The House of Lords passed the bill Thursday will little fanfare or public outcry, a fact many critics attributed to a lackluster effort by legislative opponents.

But opponents of the act also blamed a turbulent global political climate.

“The public is very concerned about this, but it’s a very complicated area," Cowburn said. "There have been several terrorist attacks in France and Belgium and people are very concerned about safety and security, quite rightly. They tend to want to listen to the government, we want to trust our government."

She said Britain's referendum vote in June to leave the European Union -- known as Brexit -- also probably reduced the amount of attention the bill might have received from the public. 

"Brexit was another unwelcome distraction both politically, and in the media," Cowburn said.

An investigatory powers commissioner will be appointed to oversee the implementation of the bill and the warrants that are issued, and several legal challenges around mass surveillance -- unrelated to this specific bill -- are also making their way through the European courts. 

"The digital world has exposed all of us to data loss, but none of us really knows how to deal with that," Samson said. "When every aspect of your life has to be done online and we have just allowed the government to see all of that -- that's going to take awhile to sink in."

Boyle is a special correspondent.

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