The UK government’s Investigatory Powers Act, which completed its largely unchallenged passage through parliament last week with a big thumbs up from the House of Lords, really is a miserable piece of state-snooping legislation.
Launched in November last year by then home secretary Theresa May, the IPA drags the equally miserable, indiscriminately curtain-twitching piece of New Labour legislation, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, into the digital age. Incredibly, the IPA means that, from now on, internet and phone companies will be compelled to keep the records of every phone call made and every website visited by any of their users for 12 months. That means that assorted state bodies, from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and intelligence agencies to the NHS and the Food Standards Agency, will potentially be able to see every site you have visited or call you have made over the past year.
And that’s not all. The IPA will also permit security agencies and law enforcement to ‘hack’ into computers, phones and networks effectively to spy on your communications, to listen to what you’re saying, to see what you’re looking at, to know what you’re typing. And they will be allowed to use any eavesdropping means necessary, including exploiting software vulnerabilities, which sounds like a recipe for state-corporation collusion.
According to May, who proudly and euphemistically championed the IPA as the basis for a ‘world-leading oversight regime’, the IPA will merely give the UK’s security agencies ‘the powers they need to protect our country’. If that sounds familiar, that’s because every state violation of our freedoms is justified on the grounds of our security. Indeed, New Labour home secretary Jack Straw similarly justified the original RIPA, albeit in the heady days of pre-9/11, pre-Iraq War New Labour, on security grounds. So in 2000, Straw said the RIPA was ‘key to tackling… money laundering, human trafficking, paedophilia, tobacco smuggling and other serious offences’.
But the experience of RIPA is instructive. In practice, protecting citizens from serious crime rapidly mutated into monitoring citizens for petty offences. In 2009 alone, RIPA was used to justify snooping in 552,550 cases, nearly 2,000 of which involved local authorities spying on individuals for such heinous crimes as littering and dog fouling. Given the British state’s routine distrust of civil society, one suspects that May’s iteration of the Snooper’s Charter will be as equally useful to the officious.