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Changing Safeguards in Britain’s Intelligence Community

The twitterverse has been up in arms this past week about what Internet users are calling an undemocratic and “breathtaking” attack on privacy. A new “Investigatory Powers Bill” (frequently described as the “snooper’s charter”) was presented to the British Parliament this past Wednesday for initial review and consulting. It is slated to be introduced as a bill come the New Year. In order to become a law, it will have to pass in both houses of the British Parliament. An incredible amount of the rhetoric used by major British media outlets in covering this bill makes it sound as if Britain is facing a momentous occasion to see whether or not George Orwell’s 1984 will really come true. In a tweet yesterday, renowned hacker group Anonymous shared a Guardian article that reads “U.K. Snooper’s Charter makes George Orwell look like he lacked vision.”

The forward in the draft bill, written by the Right Honourable Theresa May, highlights missing persons, child exploitation, and drug cartels as the predominant threats that warrant the proposed increase in intelligence power. Indeed, the first case study in the published document referenced a child sexual exploitation case involving the lead singer of the band Lostprophets, Ian Watkins; a case based on recovered emails and other web-based communications. It is easier to sell a product when you’re using it to save children and missing persons, but many UK citizens are concerned about what these newly proposed powers would mean for themselves and their families. If you are an average citizen of the United Kingdom reading this right now, and you’re curious about what this new legislation means to you, you can find a helpful breakdown here.

Ideally, according to this forward, these powers will be subject to “robust safeguards and visible, effective oversight.” Emphasizing oversight has been a hugely important aspect of the publication of this bill. The draft bill seeks to consolidate existing powers of the three parties that currently serve as overseers for the intelligence community, create some new oversight mechanisms altogether and update legislation to accommodate an era where communication is largely Internet-based. This draft bill has been lauded as the result of three reviews and 198 resulting recommendations regarding the use and oversight of investigatory powers by the U.K.’s intelligence agencies. According to the text of the draft bill, there are currently three oversight bodies in the United Kingdom, which is “more confusing than a single, authoritative body which has all the skills and resources it needs.”

A recent article by the Economist notes that this draft bill has experienced more consensus than surveillance bills of the past, likely helped by the fact that the U.K.’s Liberal Democrat party lost 49 seats this past May (they served as the main pro-privacy voice in the legislature). The main changes in this bill involve requiring judges to issue a warrant before an intelligence agency can acquire the data, communications agencies to hold onto all their client’s data for 12 months (lest they become suspect of anything), and authorities will allegedly not be allowed to know which specific web pages were viewed, rather the category of Internet usage. One of the major concessions in the draft bill is that it does not  require  technology companies to avoid or build “back doors” to encryption mechanisms, although some commentators are still angry that “end-to end” encryption (where the only actors who can access the information are the two users involved) is still banned. It is also suggested that the “bulk inference” and “bulk data retention” parts of the bill refer to giving the intelligence bureaus relatively explicit power to hack into the systems of suspects and retain mass surveillance of its population, wording that is worrisome to British privacy and civil-liberties groups.

The draft bill’s measures include:

  • Giving a panel of judges the power to block spying operations authorised by the home secretary.  
  • A new criminal offence of “knowingly or recklessly obtaining communications data from a telecommunications operator without lawful authority”, carrying a prison sentence of up to two years
  • Local councils to retain some investigatory powers, such as surveillance of benefit cheats, but they will not be able to access online data stored by Internet firms
  • The Wilson doctrine – preventing surveillance of Parliamentarians’ communications – to be written into law
  • Police will not be able to access journalistic sources without the authorisation of a judge
  • A legal duty on British companies to help law enforcement agencies hack devices to acquire information if it is reasonably practical to do so

Former Appeal Court judge Sir Stanley Burnton has been  appointed as the new interception of communications commissioner. This role is outlined in section 57 of the draft bill, where the Prime Minister gets to appoint a person of high judicial office to review the Interception of Communications warrants.

May was appointed Home Secretary in the spring of  2010. Her biography notes an interest in securing the U.K.’s borders against immigration and terrorism as her top priorities.

Many people see this bill as a reaction to Edward Snowden’s NSA leak. Snowden’s twitter responses have been furious, In one of his more popular tweets he wrote;  “It’s only communications data” = “It’s only a comprehensive record of your private activities.” It’s the activity log of your life.

We’ll see over the next couple of months how this piece of legislation plays out, and whether the new powers outlined in the new draft Bill really measure up to the hype.

Sarah Ireland is a Deputy Editor-in-Chief for the Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations. She is currently pursuing her M.A. in Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University, where she is specializing in Foreign Policy Analysis and the Middle East.


Follow the Journal of Diplomacy on Twitter: @JournalofDiplo

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