Why the snooping bill won’t work

Internet privacy is under attack. In the US, the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA), a surveillance bill disguised as an anti-hacking bill, is advancing in the Senate. For those of us living in the UK, there is a more urgent threat to our digital freedoms and privacy. UK home secretary Theresa May has resurrected the so-called snooper’s charter in the form of the Investigatory Powers Bill (IPB). At first, it was said that the bill would permit the state to view the internet-browsing history of anybody in the country without a warrant. Although it has since been revised, don’t be lulled into a false sense of security by reports of backtracking; the revised bill still contains many highly intrusive powers.

Unsurprisingly, the justification for the IPB is to ‘protect the public’ from the usual bogeymen: terrorists and paedophiles. Familiar rhetoric is being employed, too. ‘Nothing to hide, nothing to fear’, is the catchphrase put forward by proponents of the bill, which suggests the desire for privacy is inherently suspect. 

The truth is that what May is proposing will not protect the public from anyone who has basic technical skills and is intent on committing a crime. Tools that subvert surveillance are widely available. Tor, for example, is used by a many journalists and citizens in totalitarian states where the internet is heavily censored. It is an anonymity network that renders a user largely untraceable unless a significant adversary is able to run network-wide traffic analysis. What’s interesting is that this scale of traffic analysis gets more difficult the more people use Tor. This new bill could backfire spectacularly by prompting those who, quite reasonably, just care about their privacy to start using tools like Tor more frequently.

What’s more, if someone really wanted to be untraceable online, he or she could simply connect to a public wireless network in a café or bar and browse the internet over Tor using the Tails operating system. The IPB does nothing to clamp down on those individuals.

May’s IPB will do nothing to protect us from the bogeymen. And those of us with nothing to hide still have plenty to fear from the gradual erosion of our civil liberties.

Stephen Beard is a writer and researcher based in Liverpool.

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