UK ‘Snooper Act’ Threatens Global Information Flow

Listen closely if you make and market any types of communication equipment, because a law under revision in the United Kingdom will most likely affect your operation. The UK government is proposing an extension of the Regulation of Investigatory Power Act (RIPA). This will allow greater access to people's phone and email records. The traditional English humor has already sprung into action and given RIPA a new moniker: the Snooper Act. But what's new? Didn't we have Big Brother watching us everywhere already?

Of course we do, under the existing Act — but not without a warrant. So what's new? Here are some details of the original RIPA Act, from The Guardian:

  • Regulates the circumstances and methods by which public bodies may carry out covert surveillance.
  • Lays out a statutory framework to enable public authorities to carry out covert surveillance in compliance with the requirements of the Human Rights Act…
  • Allows the secretary of state to issue an interception warrant to examine the contents of letters or communications on the grounds of national security, and for the purposes of preventing or detecting crime, preventing disorder, public safety, protecting public health, or in the interests of the economic well-being of the United Kingdom. This is the only part of the act that requires a warrant…
  • Allows the police, intelligence services, HM Revenue and Customs (and several hundred more public bodies, including local authorities and a wide range of regulators) to demand telephone, internet and postal service providers to hand over detailed communications records for individual users. This can include name and address, phone calls made and received, source and destination of emails, internet browsing information and mobile phone positioning data that records user's location. These powers are self-authorised by the body concerned, with no external or judicial oversight…
  • Enables the government to force internet service providers to fit equipment to facilitate surveillance.
  • Allows the government to demand an ISP provider provide secret access to a customer's communication.

(Click here for more information.)

The government's new regulation seeks expansion of this law. (See Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000: Proposed Amendments Affecting Lawful Interception.) This regulation should be of interest to companies in the electronics industry because it governs the use of many of the communication devices they manufacture. The law will in many ways impact consumers and enterprises, and it's not clear yet how it will affect the propagation of communication devices.

What does this really mean? In the words of a senior Tory MP, it gives “unfettered access to every single communication people send.” The Home Office, a government department responsible for taking the lead on policies relating to immigration control, counter-terrorism, policing, drugs and crime, wants to extend the powers of the security services to monitor emails and phone calls, to help prevent terrorism. A spokesman from the Home Office clarified further in a statement:

    It is vital that police and security services are able to obtain communications data in certain circumstances to investigate serious crime and terrorism and to protect the public. We need to take action to maintain the continued availability of communications data as technology changes.

The law will monitor the time of communication, duration, and dialing numbers of a phone call or an email address. The home office spokesman further stressed that, “it does not include the content of any phone call or email and it is not the intention of the government to make changes to the existing legal basis for the interception of communications.”

OK, I understand a bit better. This law is aimed at terrorists and other law breakers, but is it possible that many innocent people might be caught in its wide jaws? Here is the rationale given by Nick Clegg, a Liberal Democrat and Deputy Prime Minister:

    All we are doing is updating the rules which currently apply to mobile telephone calls to allow the police and security services to go after terrorists and serious criminals and updating that to apply to technology like Skype which is increasingly being used by people who want to make those calls and send those emails.

What this tells me is that the current law does allow the government and its officials to essentially do as they please. The government wants complete control of all its citizens' daily activity, not just the terrorist or criminally minded ones.

Critics say the proposed revision to RIPA will constitute a violation of our basic rights to privacy, and I totally agree. Why would the government require further power to demand that Internet service providers install hardware enabling the UK's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), which coordinates all “signal intelligence activities,” to monitor all phone calls, text messages, emails, and Websites “in real time without prior warrant”? The law, as Tory MP David Davis noted, “is not focusing on terrorists or on criminals.” We are all a target.

These concerns are not without basis. Governments tend to overreach under the guise of protecting the citizenry, and often their actions tend to impede the free flow of commerce. I found that the main concern and reason for opposing the extension of this new law — that “the system could be wide open to abuse,” according to Malcolm Bruce, a senior Liberal Democrat MP — is one that should resonate with ordinary citizens and business.

In the past, information generated under RIPA has been lost, leaked, stolen, or distributed unnecessarily even by the police themselves. This is the general worry. Just imagine this being done without a court order.

This was why a similar widening of the law was rejected under the Tony Blair government. Current Prime Minister David Cameron's party opposed the measure when it was in opposition. Why are they pressing ahead now with a once abandoned regulatory expansion? And what will its passage mean for your business?

7 comments on “UK ‘Snooper Act’ Threatens Global Information Flow

  1. Ariella
    April 3, 2012

    The fact  that 'the system could be wide open to abuse,'” certainly would give me pause and definitely leads to the question you raise at the end: “Why are they pressing ahead now with a once abandoned regulatory expansion?” 

  2. Anna Young
    April 4, 2012

    Ariella, according to the UK government, it seeks to keep up with the changes in technology to help combat crimes and enhance the safety of its citizen. There's no doubt the intentions are relevant. However,the contention relates to the handling and monitoring of these data. It's found wanting. The government needs to be open about who is responsible for what?, where are the data stored, how long are they stored for? what are they used for? etc. You see, clear measure and clarification is required. So far it's flawed.

  3. Jay_Bond
    April 4, 2012

    The interesting thing about this 'snooper act', is that these sort of practices are commonplace. The government feels that in order to catch terrorists, drug dealers and other criminals that they need to cast a wide net. And if some innocent people get caught in the net, it's just collateral damage. We understand the need to get information and evidence to prevent crimes and prosecute these individuals, but at what cost. Do we need to worry about our private conversations not being so private anymore?

  4. Barbara Jorgensen
    April 4, 2012

    It seems to me the UK tabloids have already established the ease at which this type of thing can be done. On a more serious note, there are a lot of opportunities for an abuse of this power if warrants are not required. I think there should always be due process when private communications are at stake.

  5. Anna Young
    April 4, 2012

    @ Jay_Bond, that's exactly the point. There's nothing private anymore. Technology with its advantages has enabled the intrusion of our “privacy” possible. The question is where does the government draw the line? We understand and appreciate security and safety surveillance camera's coverage outside our homes but to monitor our daily conversations online and on the phone and other technological devices is just way too far I think.

  6. Anna Young
    April 4, 2012

    Barbara, would it have been possible for the newspapers to conduct this activities, had the government laid down clear rules and guidance as to who is allowed to access our information?. The whole process needs to be reviewed and tightened I think.

  7. bolaji ojo
    April 5, 2012

    Governments like more power, just in case they need it. This is the only explanation here.

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