United Kingdom Passes Sweeping ‘Snooper’s Charter’ Surveillance Act

The United Kingdom has officially passed into law the Investigatory Powers Act, according to a report from The Independent. The Act, better known as the “Snooper’s Charter,” is, according to according to Jim Killock, director of the Open Rights Group, the “most extreme surveillance law ever passed in a democracy.” And while it is still awaiting royal assent, according to anonymous sources, it is expected to receive it by the end of November.

First introduced by then-home secretary (now Prime Minister) Theresa May in 2012, the Snooper’s Charter – billed as a counter-terrorism measure – grants the British government sweeping investigatory powers and forces internet service providers to store the details of what every customer does online for a full year, information which they must make accessible to a plethora of public authorities.

Silkie Carlo, a Policy Officer at the Liberty human rights organization in the UK, called it “totalitarian” and “the most intrusive system of any democracy in history.”

“The British state has achieved totalitarian-style surveillance powers.”

“It now has the ability to indiscriminately hack, intercept, record, and monitor the communications and internet use of the entire population.”

According to ZDNet, not only does the Snooper’s Act force ISPs to record customer history in real-time and preserve it for a full year, it also allows the government to force companies to decrypt data on demand and disclose new security features in their products before launch.

Even more troubling, the act grants intelligence services the power to freely hack into computers and devices owned by citizens, and offers only marginal protection for certain “protected” professions, such as doctors or journalists.

The Snooper's Act will grant GCHQ, the British analogue to the NSA, unprecedented powers to spy on their own citizens.
The Snooper's Act will grant GCHQ, the British analogue to the NSA, unprecedented powers to spy on their own citizens. [Image by Ben Birchall - WPA Pool / Getty Images]

The Act was opposed by every major privacy and human rights group in the UK, and many outside of it. It was also opposed by the United Nations and by a significant number of Silicon Valley corporations, including Apple, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft. Apple, in particular, noted in their submission that the provisions could enable other jurisdictions to circumvent their own local restrictions.

“For the consumer in, say, Germany, this might represent hacking of their data by an Irish business on behalf of the UK state under a bulk warrant – activity which the provider is not even allowed to confirm or deny. Maintaining trust in such circumstances will be extremely difficult.”

Firefox developer Mozilla added that the Act’s provisions could be used to “compel a software developer, like Mozilla, to ship hostile software, essentially malware, to a user — or many users — without notice.”

Meanwhile, according to Killock, the opposition Labour party was “simply failing to hold the government to account,” having failed to scrutinize any amendments and abstaining from the final vote on the Snooper’s Act.

The UK government downplayed the Act’s far-reaching provisions, billing it as a reworking of the 2000 Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA). However, RIPA was first brought into play to legitimize various secret powers already held by British intelligence agencies, many of which came to light following the Edward Snowden leaks. A European Court of Human Rights Tribunal ruled that many of the British government’s actions which were revealed by the leak were unlawful; as Nick Williams, legal counsel for Amnesty International said, “It is ridiculous that the government has been allowed to rely on the existence of secret policies and procedures discussed with the Tribunal behind closed doors.”

The Snowden leaks revealed cooperation between UK and American intelligence to circumvent both local and international espionage laws.
The Snowden leaks revealed cooperation between UK and American intelligence to circumvent both local and international espionage laws. [Image by The Guardian via Getty Images]

The response seems to have been to pass a law that brings those surveillance powers out into the open – and in spite of considerable opposition, the British government has managed to do exactly that.

[Featured Image by Sean Gallup/Getty Images]