"Widespread doubts" towards the Investigatory Powers Bill

Posted by Silkie Carlo on 02 February 2016

Yesterday, the Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee released its assessment of the Government’s Draft Investigatory Powers Bill. Its conclusion: the legislation is confusing, even to tech experts.

In scrutinising the proposals, which include plans for mass hacking and the collection of everyone’s internet records, the Committee of MPs warned “there are widespread doubts over the definition… of a number of the terms used in the draft Bill”.

The lack of clarity in so many aspects of the draft Bill opens its provisions up to abuse.

The Committee noted uncertainty from the tech sector about what the Government means when it demands they collect ‘internet connection records’, and difficulty in distinguishing between collecting ‘communications data’ and ‘communications content’.

As Dr Richard Clayton, Director of the Cambridge Cloud Cybercrime Centre at the University of Cambridge, said: “the present Bill forbids almost nothing… and hides radical new capabilities behind pages of obscuring detail”. With such vague parameters, the security services are free to interpret the extent of their powers however they like.

All this confusion has raised serious concerns within the tech sector. International giants such as Facebook and Apple, as well as UK service providers like BT and ubiquitous companies like Google, have all come forward to criticise the draft Bill.

They recognise that not only will the proposals undermine their profits, but plans such as the removal of encryption from their services will undermine the trusting relationship they have with their users.

Dr Joss Wright of the Oxford Internet Institute warned in the Committee’s report of the “chilling effects” that surveillance could have on even innocent web browsing. When people know their every website visit and text message is being watched, it seems inevitable that a level of self-censorship will creep in. As our lives increasingly play out online, the expansion of surveillance leads to the shrinking of private spaces, and poses great risk to our freedom of expression.

Beyond the threat to our basic freedoms, the bulk hacking powers proposed in the draft Bill endanger the very security the Government claims to be protecting.

The scope for warrants that permit the hacking of tens, thousands, even millions of people’s devices, is likely to leave our phones, computers and the increasing number of internet-connected cars and home appliances open to attack from criminals.

Disappointingly while the Science and Technology Committee acknowledges the dangers and potential for ‘public fear’ of state-sanctioned hacking, its recommendation is only that the Investigatory Powers Commissioner merely monitors public reaction to this power, and that the Government should be prepared to “refine its approach”.

The security services are not known for giving up powers once they have been introduced.

Given the draft Bill’s clampdown on whistleblowers and strict rules on when the use of surveillance powers can be disclosed, the chances of the public ever finding out their devices have been hacked are slim. The idea that we should be waiting for something to go wrong before changing these dangerous proposals is simply absurd.

With concern and confusion growing among not only human rights campaigners and politicians, but the technology and internet companies tasked with implementing some of the draft Bill’s measures, the Government must face up to its dangers and impracticalities.

Liberty’s Safe and Sound Plan contains eight simple suggestions for how they can end the confusion and use this once-in-a-generation chance to introduce a system that is transparent, proportionate, effective and targeted at those under suspicion.