Independent review of bulk powers announced but still no room for complacency over the Investigatory Powers Bill

An aerial image of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. Photographer: GCHQ/Crown Copyright

With the EU Referendum dominating the news agenda, you may missed the news on Tuesday that the government has agreed to Labour’s demands for an independent review of the so-called bulk powers set out in the Investigatory Powers Bill.

I’ve previously blogged about how the language the government uses to describe is designed to be as boring as possible in order to disccourage public scrutiny. For an idea of how effective this can be as a tactic, see the comedian Jon Oliver’s piece on the campaign for Net Neutrality, which he memorably described as “even boring by C-Spann standards“.

What are bulk powers and why should you be concerned?

Under the Investigatory Powers Bill, the term ‘bulk powers’ gives the government to powers:

  • Tap fibre cables and scoop up vast amounts of global internet data  – essentialy collecting, storing and analysing everyone’s web traffic, emails, messages, Skype calls, etc.
  • Require communications providers collect and store for 12 months internet connection records for all UK citizens – this will show every site you’ve visited, the locations you have visited (thanks to mobile location tracking) and which apps you have installed on your phone.
  • Broad powers to hack internet equipment – instead of hacking a suspect’s computer, authorities will be able to hack the network for the entire Greater London area, putting vital infrastructure at risk.

The easiest way to understand bulk powers is the oft-cited needle in a haystack analogy. The government is seeking powers to gather hay on the whole population, in the hope that if they will then be able to spot the needles (suspected terrorists and other criminals).

The Open Rights Group and other members of the Don’t Spy On Us coalition believe bulk powers constitute mass surveillance, which is fundamentally incomptabile with basic human rights of privacy and freedom of expression. Liberty have produced a detailed briefing on the problems with the bulk powers as they are currently stand.

Reasons to be cautious about the independent review

On the face of it, the announcement of an independent review of bulk powers is to be welcomed. After all, it shows the government is willing to listen to criticism, right?

While the review is a valuable opportunity for campaigners to raise awareness of the problems with  bulk collection, we should be cautious about what difference the review will make for a couple of reasons:

  1. The review will be conducted by David Anderson, the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation. While Anderson has received praise for some aspects of his 2015 review of terrorism legislation (A Question of Trust), he was criticised for accepting the case for bulk collection. Are Anderson’s views on bulk collection will have moved significantly in the past year or so?
  2. The goverment is under no obligation to act on the findings of the independent review. Forgive me if this sounds cynical, but the government has so far pushed the bill through parliament and taken onboard very little of the criticisms levelled by no fewer than three parliamentary committees. With the review coming so late on in the parliamentary process (the bill is due to receive its third and final reading in the House of Commons in June), there’s a real chance the government will merely pay lip service to Anderson’s recommendations.

Keep up the pressure – email your MP and sign our petition today

Given the uncertainty which surrounds the inpendent review, we can’t afford to wait until Anderson reports back on bulk powers. It’s vital we keep the pressure up on the government. You can do this by:

As well as keeping up the pressure on politicians, it’s vital we continue to talk to our friends and family about the dangers of the Investigatory Powers Bill. By doing this we can raise public awareness and get more people to oppose the bill.

 

 

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