What visiting the UK means for your digital privacy

graffiti of "one nation under CCTV"

By now, most privacy cautious netizens are at least familiar with UK’s overreaching surveillance law — the Investigatory Powers Bill or “Snoopers’ Charter,” in particular.

The legislature arguably strips people of their online privacy and grants authorities easy access to everything from your browsing habits to call logs and text messaging history.

While there’s no debate that the implications of the bill are alarming for UK citizens, most people fail to realise that the Snoopers’ Charter can also affect visitors.

Let’s break it down.

At the airport

If you’re planning to visit the UK, keep in mind that you will fall victim to the Investigatory Powers Bill before even entering the country.

As you board your outgoing flight, your personal information is being sent over to the UK border agency for risk assessment. This protocol is fairly standard across the world, but once the aeroplane you’re on finally touches down, the Snoopers’ Charter comes into full effect.

If you’re anything like me, then the first thing you’re going to do after touching down is turn on your phone. Doing so will greet you with a “roaming” message from your temporary UK provider who’s letting you know that you’re once again connected to the outside world.

As convenient as this is, all of your communications data from this point forward can be collected and stored up to 12 months, even if you leave the country.

Under the Investigatory Powers Bill, telecoms and ISPs are obligated to maintain detailed records of every phone call made, every website visited, and much more.

In your Uber & AirBnB

After passing through customs and picking up your luggage you step outside and decide to Uber to the AirBnB that you’ve booked earlier.

To most people, getting an Uber or booking a room via AirBnB may seem mundane. The process is virtually identical in the UK, however, there is one small caveat — your privacy.

Due to the intentionally vague definitions included in the Investigatory Powers Bill, many privacy experts believe that tech companies (like Uber and AiBnB) can be considered to have the same functions as ISPs, thus being forced to hand over private user data.

Similarly, these companies may be required to gather and store sensitive information for up to 12 months.

About the town

By now, you’re probably discouraged from using Uber (and other ride-sharing apps), and might even be considering switching to public transit. Better, right? Well, according to Pam Cowburn, Communications Director at the Open Rights Group, — not necessarily.

Cowburn warns that UK intelligence agencies have access to various databases, including several relating to “travel.” In short, this means that information about every ticket or bus pass that you buy is recorded and can later be accessed by authorities.

Currently, very little is known about what these “databases” are, and what information they may contain. Privacy groups speculate that (for visitors) they’re likely to include hotel reservations, passport data, and oyster card transactions.

If that’s not concerning enough, consider that nearly 50 government agencies will be able to access your private data, and in some cases without due process or a warrant. In instances where a warrant is issued, your data may still be accessed even if you’re not the subject of an investigation.

Under the Snoopers’ Charter, the state can issue “thematic warrants,” which will grant government agencies access to bulk data. To make matters worse, these warrants will be handed out by secret courts and most of the time private data can be gathered without revealing the target of an investigation.

What can you do?

Well, the obvious solution is to cancel your trip to the UK and plan an entirely new vacation elsewhere.

If, however, you insist on visiting the kingdom, you can (and should) take a few precautionary measures to ensure your digital privacy.

The quickest and easiest way to do that is via a VPN. There are many options to choose from, but I personally recommend IPVanish or ExpressVPN. Both are outstanding providers, so you can’t go wrong picking either for your next trip abroad.

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