The so-called Snooper’s Charter – the Investigatory Powers Act – which gives governments the right to spy on its citizens has now become law in the UK.
Following a long and tortuous route through Parliament the Act received Royal Assent in December. It hands over pretty much unrestricted power to the police and other government agencies to hack phones, tablets and computers.
This is despite being ruled unlawful by the European Court of Justice and described by critics as “the most extreme surveillance regime of any democracy in history”.
So how will the new powers affect me?
In tech speak, the new Act will allow UK law enforcement agencies to carry out the “targeted interception of electronic communications, the mass collection of communications data and the bulk interception of communications”.
But what does this mean?
It means that the UK security services will now be able to read your email, monitor the websites you visit, and collect your messages, your posts, private tweets and your WhatsApp messages.
It means the state has the power to hack into devices such as mobile phones, force companies to decrypt those devices and demand technical changes from manufacturers.
Fighting terrorism, or snooping on you?
Ahead of its Royal Assent, Home Secretary Amber Rudd said: “This government is clear that at a time of heightened security threat, it is essential our law enforcement, security and intelligence services have the powers they need to keep people safe.
“The internet presents new opportunities for terrorists and we must ensure we have the capabilities to confront this challenge.”
Law enforcement agencies have long argued that their ability to track online communications is limited and the law was simply not keeping pace with technology.
They believe the new Act will bring together all the various cyber laws into one package and enable them to fight terrorism more effectively.
Four major areas of the Snooper’s Charter
Your web browsing history will be kept
The fact that you are online reading any website is now potentially state knowledge.
The new bill allows security services to force Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to maintain and keep detailed information on their customers’ web browsing for 12 months.
There is no means of opting out of this and the data will be collected on everyone.
States can hack with impunity
Known as Equipment Interference, the new powers will allow the security services to break into computers, networks, mobile devices and servers.
Equipment Interference encompasses a wide-range of activity, from remote access of computers to downloading the contents of a mobile phone during a search.
Law enforcement agencies have argued that they need to be able to access communications in order to gain valuable intelligence in criminal investigations and to help gather evidence for use in prosecutions.
Encrypting and decrypting
Referred to in the Act as Electronic Protection, security services will now be able to force companies to decrypt devices and demand backdoors if they feel it is needed.
ISPs and other telecoms providers must let the government know in advance of any new products to allow the government to demand technical changes to software and systems.
Bulk Equipment Interference gives intelligence agencies powers to hack and monitor groups of people.
It’ll be used when authorities do not know exactly who, where or what they want to hack – they’ll get ‘bulk warrants’ lasting up to six months.
Snooper’s Charter: Nothing to hide, nothing to fear?
This Act has drastically changed the electronic landscape we are all familiar with. Supporters of the Act have long argued that if you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to fear.
Sadly, this has not always been the case for certain sections of our society.
Whether the new powers now enacted will make us safer is open to question.
Only time will tell whether the fight against terrorism and crime is improved or whether we have finally arrived at the Big Brother society George Orwell warned us about all those years ago.
If you’re worried about your internet privacy or just want to keep your browser history out of the hands of the government, you should consider using a VPN – or Virtual Private Network. This tech hides or spoofs your computer or phone’s IP address, keeping your internet history away from prying eyes.
You can find all the UK’s best-rated VPNs here.