What Snowden, the Media and We Think About the Snoopers’ Charter

Cyber Politics, Security & Privacy

A turbulent U.S. election season. Ongoing tragedy in the Middle East. A Brexit vote result that threatens to tear apart the very fabric of European unity. Turkey continues to chip away at personal freedom, and Russia shows its increasing unwillingness to indulge dissenting opinions. It’s been one tumultuous year, but at least there are no more nails left to hammer into the coffin of 2016… right?

Sadly, there is one more nail. Last week, the UK parliament passed the Investigatory Powers Bill (nicknamed the Snoopers’ Charter), an intrusive law that gives the government unprecedented authority to conduct surveillance and gather data on its own citizens, who will only be able to circumvent this by encrypting their traffic and data. Here’s a short rundown on what the bill includes:

  • Web and phone companies have to keep records of all websites visited by their users for 12 months. They must have capability to instantly intercept any data passing through their networks
  • Not only law enforcement have access to the data, but a huge number of government departments. Here is a full list.
  • Ministers authorize data collection, but a panel of seven judges has the power to veto decisions, except in “urgent cases” (notice the vague wording there).
  • Oversight of the new system will be handled by one senior judge, not three as previously.

The media, privacy advocates and the technology industry have reacted with almost unanimous condemnation. Here are four critical points of view, including our own as a VPN provider:

1. What does your Internet history reveal about you? – The Independent

In its heavy-handed critique of the law, the Independent mentions the unprecedented erosion of personal privacy. Everything including your medical concerns, religious beliefs and sexual preferences will now have to be stored in a file with your name on it. With the large amount of government agencies having potential access to this information, how long before it’s abused?

2.  The law has passed with barely a whimper – The Guardian

In its article on the subject, the Guardian rightfully points out the lack of effort from part of the opposition and the privacy movement to get the law passed. With the Labor Party in internal chaos and a public that is still reeling in from other cataclysmic events this year, the government had to make very few concessions to their plan.

3. The most intrusive surveillance system in the west – Edward Snowden

The world’s most known whistleblower and rightful hero of the privacy movement weighed in on the subject with some sobering tweets, which included this quote:

“It is the most intrusive and least accountable surveillance regime in the West”.

This perspective is crucial to counter any arguments that this is just a natural step for a government to protect the rule of law. It’s not. Countries like Germany have recently passed laws extending the powers of intelligence agencies, but the Snoopers’ Charter makes it seem mild in comparison.

4. No direct obligations are imposed on VPN providers – F-Secure Freedome

While it’s easy to view this topic in a negative light, there is a three-letter silver lining to all this: VPN. The law does not directly mention providers like us, and we will continue to offer the public a way to essentially bypass this intrusive form of mass data collection. We will also do everything we can to challenge anything that would prevent us from providing encryption to UK customers. It’s also the opinion of F-Secure’s legal experts that the bulk data collection proposed in the law would be found excessive by the European Court of Justice. What effect this will have depends largely on Brexit.

So, is free speech dead? Maybe not, but it has definitely suffered a serious injury. 18th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham designed a prison called the Panopticon, where prisoners were given zero privacy and were made very aware of someone potentially watching them every second. He theorized that the simple fear of being observed at all times would eliminate anti-authoritarian thoughts and turn the prisoners into obedient citizens.

The Snoopers’ Charter can end up having similar effects on us as individuals. However, it’s not possible not pleasant to imagine a world full of only obedient citizens where controversial ideas would stop existing because of fear of who might be listening. Protect your privacy, encrypt your connection and don’t let the modern day Panopticon get the best of you!

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1 Comments

I’m surprised you think the new Act couldn’t apply to you. The bill defines an “operator” as anyone who “offers or provides a telecommunications service to persons in the United Kingdom”, which surely includes VPN providers, and under section 88, they can serve a notice on an operator or a whole class of operators (such as “all public VPN providers”) requiring them to keep data.

I don’t think Labour’s weakness here is due to their disarray particularly: they actually wanted to introduce something similar when they were in government. They are thoroughbred supporters of this draconian legislation in principle.

I think it is more than likely that you will have to withdraw your London node. I think if you have no presence in the UK, they have no way of getting at you. However, their response is likely to be to make public VPNs illegal to use, so then only the bad guys will break the law by using them, and all ordinary citizens will be the ones spied on.

As to the European Court of Justice – you do know this extremist government we have also wants to withdraw from that, don’t you? It makes decisions in favour of human rights and freedoms which this government loathes.

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