Incognito can’t save you now
With a series of decisions so far described variously as ‘Orwellian’, ‘draconian’, and ‘terrifying’, the British government appears hell-bent on adding your online freedom and privacy to the ever growing list of casualties of 2016.
But is it all as bad as it seems? Let’s have a look.
Last week, the Investigatory Powers Bill – an evolved form of Theresa May’s now six-year-old brainchild, the Draft Communications Bill (or Snooper’s Charter as it became known) – passed into law.
The bill gives the government unparalleled powers of surveillance including, but not limited to:
– Requiring ISPs to keep a record of every user’s online activity for at least 12 months – records that must be given (and decrypted) to government agencies upon presentation of a warrant, and
– Giving various groups including the police and intelligence agencies new powers to remotely access your online devices, and to collect data both on an individual and bulk level.
This means that a record every website you’ve visited and every online service you’ve used in the past year will now exist on a database somewhere. Even if you’re in incognito mode. So those surprise parties you’ve been booking, or that secret present shopping you’ve been hiding from your partner may not be so secret after all…
The list of agencies who could, in theory, access your internet history should they be able to provide sufficient reason to do so is rather long and includes, bizarrely enough, the Food Standards Agency and the Department for Work and Transport.
Now you’d be forgiven for not being completely taken by surprise at these powers being granted – particularly since British intelligence agencies were found to have been unlawfully collecting data on citizens for more than 15 years just two weeks before this bill was passed.
But make no mistake – the explicit legalisation of this is unprecedented. As Ed Snowden was keen to point out:
The UK has just legalized the most extreme surveillance in the history of western democracy. It goes farther than many autocracies. https://t.co/yvmv8CoHrj
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) November 17, 2016
Now, before we go any further, let’s make it clear that this bill was devised with the aim of improving counter-terrorism work, as well as cracking down on online sharing of images and videos of child sex abuse (among other things).
It was not devised so that Theresa May can record what you’re watching while you play solitaire.
The real issue at hand is one of a trade off, however – how much of your privacy are you willing to give up in the name of security?
Of course, there will be those unconcerned with government agencies having potential access to their internet history – the ‘I’ve got nothing to hide’s – and perhaps rightly so. It may be an unfashionable line but if you aren’t up to no good, you really don’t have too much to worry about here.
The transparency is also a positive: at least we’re being told about widespread online surveillance this time.
And let’s not forget that the government does not simply have free reign to access the recorded information as they please – warrants are required, as well as further judicial approval, before data is handed over.
However, those who are concerned (and justifiably so) see it more as an issue of principle. And where do we draw the line? At what point does further increased and more intrusive surveillance stop being justified in the name of public safety? [insert reference to 1984 telescreens]
As former MP Julian Huppert said: “Some of the powers in the Bill are deeply intrusive, and with very little possible justification. All of us want to be safe, and protected from terrorists and the like – but the evidence that these powers are all needed is thin indeed. However, the cost to all of our privacy is huge.”
Even the inventor of the world wide web, Tim Berners-Lee himself, was shocked by the government’s decision:
Dark, dark days. https://t.co/AP5UCdUhnb
— Tim Berners-Lee (@timberners_lee) November 19, 2016
But with tin-foil hats removed for just a minute, I do think that comparisons between Theresa May’s Conservative government of today and Big Brother’s Ingsoc government in 1984 are somewhat melodramatic – while this latest move does certainly constitute a reduction of online privacy and anonymity, I’m not hugely concerned about a government having access to my internet history. Not least because all of the whistles blown in recent years led me to assume that they probably did anyway.
But maybe I’m not cynical enough.
Maybe I’m just one of the ‘sheeple’.
OK, you can put your tin-foil hats back on now.
Digital Economy Bill
While the massively increased powers of surveillance that the Investigatory Powers Act can to some extent be justified by the ostensible aim of protecting us and our children from terrorists and sex offenders, the same cannot be said for the Digital Economy Bill.
While the former gained the nickname Snooper’s Charter, I’m inclined to give the latter the less re-printable moniker: Wanker’s Ruin. I hope it sticks.
This bill (which, thankfully, has not yet passed into law) really will limit your freedom to play the lonely harp along to whatever tune you see fit.
One major aim of the Digital Economy Bill is force any websites displaying pornographic content to implement strict age verification procedures since “only adults should be allowed to view such content”.
Not necessarily a disagreeable premise in theory – children probably shouldn’t be watching porn – but as soon as you give even the slightest bit of thought to the actual logistics of this, it screams shortsightedness. And not least because any real attempt prevent a teenage boy from actually accessing porn is likely to be about as effective as a fart in a hurricane.
In order to implement age verification, the details of every UK porn viewer will have to be stored somewhere in one way or another. This brings up two problems:
Firstly, it creates an environment ripe for fraud, since credit card or payment details will likely be used as the most common form of age verification.
And secondly, I would hazard a guess and say that most porn viewers would rather not have their entire viewing history recorded on a database for reasons ranging from desire for basic privacy to concerns about blackmail.
There are bigger problems with the Digital Economy Bill, however – as of it’s most recent revision, it now includes the proposal to block sites that do not implement effective age verification from being accessed in the UK.
And this is something that should get you worried. This amounts to no less than censorship of legal material.
As Jim Killock, director of digital freedom campaigners the Open Rights Group, said: “While child protection is important, this proposal is disproportionate. Censorship of any kind should be reserved for illegal and harmful content.
“We are talking about potentially thousands of websites with legal material being censored, something that is unprecedented in the developed world.”
There is yet another worry with this Bill though, albeit one that is not as explicit.
Enter the BBFC
The powers of regulation and the final say as to what kind of content should be prohibited would be in the hands of the BBFC. The same BBFC responsible for classifying all film and tv content you see; the same BBFC who just a couple of years ago caused uproar when they announced that they would refuse to classify any pornographic material depicted acts that they, in their infinite wisdom, decided were ‘obscene’.
This is the body that considers spanking and face-sitting to be too obscene to be shown to the sensitive eyes of the British public (a decision that sparked one of the “strangest protests parliament has likely seen in recent memory). Woe be to them.
While the Bill itself makes no direct reference to the prohibition of ‘non-conventional’ sex acts, a spokesperson for the BBFC has.
In making assessments of websites, they said, they would consider whether or not they are hosting “pornographic content that we would refuse to classify”.
“If a website fails on either of these tests [content or lack of age verification] then a notification of non-compliance will be sent to the site.”
While there are many issues with the porn industry, and arguably with porn itself, this kind of moralising of sexual preference is archaic and has no place in today’s society.
Both of these pieces of legislation represent a curtailing of our digital freedom. While, as with most things, some compromise is reasonable (sacrificing some privacy in order to facilitate counter-terrorism efforts, for example), there has to be a line drawn somewhere. And it’s getting harder and harder to work out where that will be.
For now though, you’ll have to make peace with the fact that next time you decide to do a bit of DIY, there’s always a chance that dear old Theresa May just might take a peak at what you’ve been watching.
And who knows how she’ll react to your browsing history…