Last week, David Anderson, Queen’s Counsel, published a nearly 200-page review of the highly controversial bulk powers included in the Investigatory Powers Bill announced earlier this year. In his report, Anderson writes that there are no alternatives to the bulk surveillance powers proposed in the legislature, virtually endorsing the bill.
Needless to say, this claim (along with the rest of the review) received a mixed reaction from both privacy activists and the general public.
While most privacy advocates would agree with Anderson’s recommendation for the appointment of a technical advisory panel (which would advise agencies on how they can reduce the privacy footprint of their activities), many are also concerned that his report might be used to stifle the discussion around the topic of mass surveillance.
Open Rights Group
The Open Rights Groups is also concerned that the review was rushed, and the findings presented were one sided. Javier Ruiz from the ORG pointed out that the review focused entirely on the utility of bulk surveillance to the government, and completely overlooked any of its other implications – including a wider impact on human rights.
For starters, at this point, the legislature surrounding the implementation of the Investigatory Powers Bill is extremely vague. There has been a lot of talk about the bulk powers, but hardly any discussion about what these “powers” will look like in practice.
Anderson too glosses over these concerns, despite the fact that documents leaked by Snowden show that GCHQ’s previous “interference activities” have already disturbed internet traffic of entire countries.
Furthermore, the report also fails to mention whether or not the safeguards in place on bulk powers will satisfy the European Convention on Human Rights. The entire review simply focuses on whether or not the tools will be effective to the government.
While this on its own brings up several concerns about potential misuse, the Open Rights Group says there is a bigger issue at stake. Their main concern (which is shared by many other activist groups) is with regards to “how pervasive monitoring will affect democracy and individuals’ personal development in the medium to long term.”
In his review, Anderson briefly offers his perspective on the matter – virtually stating that strong surveillance powers are necessary in order to ensure that the nation is protected against external threats. Otherwise, Anderson writes, citizens may come the conclusion that the authorities are powerless, which “can result in hopelessness and a sense of injustice.”
The ORG countered, explaining that the overreaching surveillance powers are certainly an overcompensation mechanism, and will hardly do anything to address the underlying causes of insecurity.
Additionally, Liberty – a human rights group, says that Anderson’s report doesn’t bring forward any new information to justify the vague use cases proposed by the government. The organization also criticized Anderson for basing much of the review on anecdotal assertions instead of hard evidence.
In all 200 pages of the document, he doesn’t answer one of the most critical questions of whether or not the information collected by bulk powers has been an instrumental factor in detecting and then preventing serious crime.
All in all, human rights groups and privacy advocates seem to agree that a more in-depth look is necessary before a balanced discussion can take place. That said, the Investigatory Powers Bill will appear before the Lords this Autumn.
In the meantime, you can take a few steps to maximize your online privacy. A great place to start is by investing in a VPN. Using a VPN doesn’t mean that you have something to hide, but rather that you believe in maintaining your privacy and keeping the prying eyes out.