Draconian act makes Stasi look amateurish

Posted By: December 07, 2016

Brian Feeney. Irish News (Belfast). Wednesday , December 7, 2016

On November 29 the Investigatory Powers Act (IPA) 2016 became law. Britain’s home secretary, Amber Rudd, she who wanted to compel companies to disclose how many ‘foreigners’ they employed, issued a statement extolling the virtues of the act. She said it is ‘world-leading legislation’.

So it is. It gives the British government the most draconian and far-reaching powers of any state outside China to snoop into the private lives of its citizens. You don’t even have to be suspected of anything to come under the gaze of Britain’s snoopers. It makes the old Stasi surveillance regime in East Germany look like an amateur night out.

The act not only gives the government power to snoop into your PC but also to hack into it and into your mobile phone. All web providers and mobile phone companies are compelled to keep a record of your browsing and calls for 12 months and hand it over to police and a huge list of agencies if asked. As comedian Frankie Boyle said, ‘one misspelled Google search for “bong-making” and you’ll be in an orange jumpsuit.’

The act exposes journalists’ records, including phone numbers called or received if a judge signs off a police request. As we all know, police are capable of finding a willing judge on call who will happily sign off anything at any hour of the day or night. That’s goodbye to investigative journalism. It also puts the dampener on whistleblowers.

Ironically almost exactly a month before the IPA was passed the Investigatory Powers tribunal, a secretive court that hears complaints against GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 found all three had been acting unlawfully for the previous 17 years by collecting vast volumes of private information – bulk personal datasets – as they’re known. That included medical and tax records, travel data and financial activity. The tribunal found all the agencies had failed to comply with Article 8 of the European Court of Human Rights, the right to privacy. All that’s out the window now. Of course, as we know the dreadful Rudd and her interfering boss Theresa May intend to opt out of the ECHR anyway.

A petition of over 130,000 names has been gathered asking for the repeal of the act. Some chance. The damage is done. During its passage through parliament the Labour party, obsessed with its civil war, largely abstained. The Lib Dems led the opposition but they’re too weak to stop anything. It’s notable that Sinn Féin and the SDLP, who felt compelled to issue a risible reaction to Donald Trump’s election which for some reason the incorrigible tweeter ignored, didn’t organize any opposition to the IPA. Naturally, the unionist parties are all in favor of the act. Some of the DUP probably don’t think it goes far enough.

There are ways around it. Indeed it’s no coincidence that if you Google ‘Investigatory Powers Act’ you see a list of adverts offering you ways to protect your privacy from $3 a month. You can use proxy servers or virtual private networks – VPN. You can block trackers and encrypt email. All the bad guys will do this. If you take these precautions you’ll likely draw attention to yourself and Big Brother will come after you. If they want to, there’s no way you can hide unless you’re of Edward Snowden standard. Still, do you want to live in a cupboard outside Moscow in January?

Incidentally, it’s not just the police and security agencies who can have access to everything you look at and everyone you ring [call]. There’s army, navy and air force police, HMRC, Stormont’s departments of communities, economy and justice, the Gambling Commission, Department of Work and Pensions, The North’s ambulance service…and on and on. There are dozens of others and of course since all these organizations and agencies are notoriously lousy at web security it means your data are available to anyone who hacks into any of these organizations or agencies as people do on an almost weekly basis.

Various privacy groups are challenging the act in the ECHR and Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson has taken a case to the European Court of Justice. Even if they win, so what? Theresa May’s walking out of both into her surveillance state.