The IP Bill: the good, the bad and the downright scary

Posted by Silkie Carlo on 04 March 2016

On Tuesday – less than three weeks after the draft version came in for severe criticism from no less than three cross-party committees – the Home Office published its Investigatory Powers Bill.

In an accompanying statement, Theresa May said she was “pleased to say that the revised Bill, along with the supporting material that we are publishing alongside it, give effect to the vast majority of the recommendations made by the three Committees”.

Hooray, you might say! Parliamentary scrutiny in action!

Except that’s not the case. The Home Office didn’t even take the time to give the bill a proper facelift, let alone implement many of the committees’ 123 recommended changes.

Here are the good, the bad and the downright scary revisions that have – and haven’t – been made.

What’s better

  • Nothing.

What’s worse

  • The “revised” Bill has actually extended its already widely condemned plans to gather and store our internet browsing histories. Under the new Bill, police will be able to access the full history of internet connections, rather than just those relating to illegal sites and social media.
  • There are new plans for communications at immigration detention centres to be intercepted as a matter of routine.
  • And, in an extraordinary move with potentially ruinous repercussions for lawyer-client confidentiality, it extends police hacking powers to cover immigration and nationality offences.

What’s frightening

  • Powers to hack thousands or even millions of devices en masse remain – in spite of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s (ISC) recommendations that they be removed. Bulk hacking is an incredibly intrusive and potentially dangerous power that could seriously threaten everybody’s data security– yet the Home Office remains bent on legalising it despite admitting the Home Secretary can’t fully assess “the necessity and proportionality” of each hack before issuing a warrant for it.
  • The state will still be able to access bulk personal datasets - massive files of highly personal information (everything from political views to medical records) on thousands of innocent people. Despite the committees’ protests, the intelligence agencies still wouldn’t even need a specific warrant to collect each dataset.
  • The intelligence agencies will still be able to gather and analyse the internet histories of the entire population.
  • The ISC gave the draft bill’s pitiful privacy protections a slating, and said robust safeguards should form “an integral part of the legislation”. So the Home Office changed the title of the “General Protections” section to “General Privacy Protections”. Nothing else in the section has been changed. This astonishingly superficial change does absolutely nothing to protect the privacy of every person in Britain, which is compromised beyond reason by this Bill.
  • MPs, journalists and lawyers still stand to have their communications spied on:
    • If the authorities want to look at MPs’ communications relating to constituency matters (but not national, personal or any other issues), the Prime Minister must give the nod.
    • Lawyers’ communications can be obtained so long as there is an “exceptional and compelling” reason. “Exceptional and compelling” are not defined.
    • Journalists have no protection from hacking or interception. Their only safeguard is that a judge must sign off any plans to gather their communications data if the stated intention is to identify a source.
  • Targeted surveillance warrants could still be ‘thematic’ – which means they could cover thousands of people who “share a common purpose” or “carry out a particular activity” – and breach human rights. Both the ISC and the Joint Committee on the Bill warned against this.
  • The Home Office ignored recommendations for an independent Intelligence and Surveillance Commission – sticking instead with its plans for Judicial Commissioners, appointed by the Prime Minister and funded by the Home Secretary, to both authorise and oversee the use of surveillance powers – i.e. to mark their own homework.
  • Judicial Commissioners are still not required (and might not be able to) make merits-based decisions on whether to approve the Home Secretary’s surveillance warrants. As before, they only have the power to rubber stamp.

In short, this Bill still needs a huge amount of work. In fact it is so fundamentally flawed in its current form that it cannot be allowed to pass into law. In the coming months, Liberty will be campaigning for mass surveillance provisions to be stripped out, and strong privacy safeguards to be introduced. By joining Liberty today, and signing up to our Safe and Sound 8 Point Plan, you can help us ensure surveillance is proportionate, transparent and targeted.