Halloween is the perfect time of year to be scared. And if you are living in the UK at the moment, there are few things that should put the chill in your bones more than the Snoopers Charter.
Its official name is the Investigatory Powers Bill and it is soon to officially become law in the UK. After more than a year of debate and discussion, the legislation has now been passed, fittingly on Halloween, by the House of Lords, with just a few amendments.
It is now likely to become law before the end of the year, as the Government intended because it is then that existing surveillance laws will expire.
So, what does the Snoopers Charter actually mean? Well, in a nutshell, it will give the UK Government an unprecedented level of power to snoop on the activities of their citizens.
It will force UK Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to keep a record of your online activity for 12 months. This means that data about everything that you do online will be stored by your ISP, and therefore susceptible to being hacked and made public. UK Intelligence agencies will also be able to access the data.
Communications service providers, which means everyone from online messaging services to postal services, will have to store the metadata about all communications taking place on their servers for the same period too.
It also permits to use of bulk data collection. This has been taking place in the UK for years, although a tribunal recently ruled that it been done illegally for most of that time. Now intelligence agencies will be able to collect and retain bulk data sets, which collate online data from numerous different sources into a single file.
Most of those files will be kept on people who are not under suspicion of any offence and do not have any criminal record. The risks of keeping such data together in a single file are obvious, although intelligence agencies will need a warrant to be able to look at them.
The new law will also allow the UK Government to undertake the hacking of mobile devices, computers, and servers for the first time. This means they can break into a device and download data from it and also upload malware and other malicious files which allow them to monitor activity on the device.
It even allows the bulk hacking of large numbers of devices overseas if there is a suspected terrorist risk, although this practice will need a warrant from the Home Secretary.
Safeguards to protect the rights of individuals as a result of these new powers are few and far between in the bill. It does create an Investigatory Powers Commissioner (IPC) and judicial commissioners who can audit the use of the powers and investigate complaints. But these posts will be appointed by the Prime Minister, so their neutrality is questionable.
One of the few concessions the Government has made during discussions in the House of Lords is to add a paragraph at the start of the legislation stressing the importance of individual privacy is at the heart of the Bill. But this is scant consolation for those who actually understand what the new powers entail.
Advocates of the new powers argue that the new Bill brings a new era of transparency to the use of such powers.
But privacy campaigners are more sceptical, suggesting that intelligence agencies are only ever going to reveal powers they don’t mind the public knowing about. There will always be question marks about what else is being done without public knowledge and the previous illegal use of bulk collection just serves to emphasise this point.
Criticism has been levelled at the Conservative Party for tabling such an intrusive series of powers. Some notable voices within the party, including the current Brexit Secretary David Davis, are on record condemning the Bill.
But the opposition Labour Party has failed to oppose anything within the Bill either and are supporting the Government. This has upset many but should come as little surprise given the intrusive powers the previous Labour Government passed as well.
What can I do?
For many people, the Snoopers Charter will come as a bit of surprise. Although it has been on the table in one form or another for years, the majority of the debate of its content has been overshadowed by the EU Referendum and subsequent Brexit.
With the Bill having now been approved by the Lords and the Commons, it is going to become law, and there isn’t anything we can do about that.
If you are concerned about the intrusion into your online privacy, the best thing you can do is take steps to protect yourself. Use a VPN at all times on all your devices and try to switch to secure, encrypted software as much as you can.
This will help to secure the traffic from your devices and provide you with some protection. But for everyone in the UK, the Snoopers Charters has made for one of the scariest Halloweens in a long, long time.