The Snooper’s Charter: another tool to control online speech

No matter who wins a UK general election, you can be quite sure that they will spend the rest of their term demanding an ever-expanding arsenal of new powers for law enforcement. Having freed themselves from the influence of those interfering lily-livered Lib Dems, the unencumbered Conservatives are therefore rushing full steam ahead with the intrusive mass surveillance legislation that they have been trying to pass for several years. While US tech companies are busy fighting government demands to make their software more FBI-friendly, authorities in the UK are trying to forestall the issue by granting themselves wide-ranging powers not only to snoop on our communications, but to compel private businesses into doing the snooping on the government’s behalf — secretly, against their will, and possibly at their own expense.

Needless to say, these plans have not proved popular. Internet providers are concerned about the cost of storing their customers’ web history for 12 months, privacy campaigners have noted the potential for abuse by hackers or overzealous authorities, and software developers are worried about the impact on UK businesses whose products will forever be suspected of harbouring government-mandated spyware. The only people who are almost certainly not bothered by the proposed law are actual criminals, who can trivially bypass the measures using freely-available foreign encryption services — but trying to explain to the UK government that they don’t rule the entire world seems to be a losing battle.

Anti-terror laws are not a recent invention, of course; there has been a new one passed every couple of years since the turn of the millennium, along with several previous incarnations of the “Snooper’s Charter” that never made it onto the statute books. What is remarkable about this particular bill, however, is how openly the government are admitting that its primary objectives have nothing to do with terrorism.

Consider the possible uses of so-called “Internet Connection Records” suggested by the National Crime Agency, the organisation tasked with investigating serious crimes such as human trafficking and child abduction. Of the eleven scenarios imagined by the NCA, only one of them even mentions terrorism and it’s purely about speech, not actual violence. The government are selling this law as a vital tool in the fight against terror, yet they can barely manage to come up with a single example of it actually being useful against a terrorist. Perhaps they are less excited about catching dangerous criminals than about the vastly increased possibilities for regulating online speech that this legislation will enable.

Some of the other proposed uses verge on the Orwellian. Locating a missing murder suspect based on his browsing habits might sound clever, until you consider how many false positives will likely be thrown up from a database of over 40 million internet users. Perhaps the most bizarre example, analysed in more detail by ISP director Adrian Kennard, involves a teenager who sends abusive emails to school staff from an anonymising email service, after which the police conduct a search for anybody who has accessed the webmail site in question, refining the results until they identify the household of a pupil at the school. A rude unsolicited email is a nuisance at most, assuming it even makes it past the spam filter. Is this really an issue that requires a police investigation?

That the official agency responsible for tracking down paedophiles and drug smugglers would celebrate the abuse of anti-terror laws to identify teenage trolls is deeply concerning, for two reasons. Firstly, because it reveals the extent to which the machinery of government has been infected by the wacky, hypersensitive politics normally associated with safe-spaced student unions, where unpleasant speech is considered a form of violence, and whining to the authorities an act of bravery. Law enforcement should be the stern voice of common sense, responding to a childish squabble by telling the kids involved to grow up, not by authorising a counter-terrorist surveillance operation.

Secondly, these scenarios give an ominous glimpse of the sort of fishing trips that bulk data collection will encourage. The government are not just seeking to examine the internet records of particular suspects, but to comb through the entire population’s browsing history looking for access to particular websites. Imagine what other dragnets could be conducted with this same technology. Anybody who has visited The Pirate Bay, obviously, because copyright infringement is illegal. Anybody who has visited the EFF or Open Rights Group, because only hackers are interested in that stuff. Anybody who has visited PETA, because they might be a violent extremist. Anybody who has visited Stormfront, EDL or even UKIP, because they are probably a racist. Anybody who has accessed Al Jazeera, maybe? Anybody who has ever read Spiked?

Supporters of this legislation will no doubt dismiss such concerns as fear-mongering, assuring us that the bill will not allow fishing expeditions, only targeted investigations involving illegal content like child pornography. But this offers little comfort given the vast range of other material that could also be considered illegal, from ripped episodes of Game of Thrones to offensive jokes or even racist dog videos. When people can be thrown in jail for posting — or even just reading — online speech, the claim that only “criminals” will be snooped on is practically meaningless. Should we really assume that the same authorities that lock people up for reading text won’t also make use of surveillance technology to identify more of these thought criminals, once they have the ability to do so?

We should bear in mind that the details of this legislation have not been fully worked out; not all of the uses proposed by the NCA may be legally permitted or technically feasible. But the message is clear: speech policing is here to stay, will likely increase in future, and, if backed by intrusive surveillance powers, could become dangerously efficient. Even if certain forms of spying can be justified in the interests of fighting terrorism, unless we see a dramatic reversal in law enforcement priorities — a focus on actual, violent crime, instead of harmless speech — we should be extremely wary of granting the government any more access to our online activities than it already has.

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