Ask An Adult: What Is The Snoopers Charter And Should I Be Worried?

You're busy. You haven't properly looked into it. Here's your need-to-know.

Ask An Adult: What Is The Snooper's Charter And Should I Be Worried?

by Stevie Martin |
Published on

If you’ve been too busy to keep up with the news this month, you might have heard some vague mutterings about a snooper’s charter. Along with something about companies keeping our data, and privacy, and mumble mumble encryptions mumble mumble cough.

But what is it? And how scary is it for you, specifically? Well, it depends on who you talk to. Those in the government trying to push the bill forward (after it was, in its original form, blocked three years ago by the Lib Dems) say it’s necessary if we want to catch terrorists and help the police solve crimes. Those against it think it’s basically Big Brother.

Here’s your need to know, laid out in an easy-to-read question and answer format so the next time someone starts discussing the snoopers’ charter, you’ll have something to say about it. Other than asking them what it is.

What is the snoopers’ charter actually called?

Ah, you’ve cleverly twigged that bills usually have really boring names. Yep, this one is no different. Originally called the Draft Communications Bill, which was blocked by Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems three years ago, the moment the Tories got into power, they started work on the updated version. The Snoopers’ Charter 3,000, if you will.

And it’s called the Investigatory Powers Bill which, and I think you’ll agree, sounds incredibly sexy.

What does the snoopers’ charter plan to do?

Where to start? OK, so the broad idea is to ensure internet providers (companies that you deal with online) keep all your records for 12 months. What you’ve searched for on the internet, what you’ve bought, who you’ve banked with, who you’ve Facebook messaged, everything.

Previously, this has been the case for emails and phone records, but now we’re going balls-out with the internet as well. The police and 38 other public bodies, including councils and tax people, will be able to gain access to these records. (Previously, the vibe was that they’d have to get a warrant from an independent judge who would weigh up the need for them to go looking at your stuff.)

The new bill would allow authorities to view records without the use of a warrant – but only in the event of emergencies. You might read scaremongering stuff about low-level policemen needing no warrants to look at your Snapchats, but this is only in extreme circumstances.

And when it occurs, a judge will review what they’ve done and be able to cancel it.

GCHQ will be able to break into your computer/phone without a warrant, by the way.

So only the police, GCHQ and people who need it will be able to see my stuff?

No – the police, GCHQ et al won’t be storing the information. Individual companies will, which is where it starts to get a bit concerning. Think about the Sony hacks, the Talk Talk hacks, the Vodafone hacks, The Happening…

Hackers want your personal stuff, and internet service providers are sensitive to breaches.

More worryingly, David Cameron recently spoke in favour of weakening the encryption on your data (things like WhatsApp and iMessage are encrypted so not even Apple and WhatsApp can see details about the messages you send, for example) despite the fact that home secretary Theresa May stated that the Bill ‘does not ban encryption or do anything to undermine security of people’s data’.

The details of this aren’t clear, and there are a lot of concerns that the security around our information will be significantly weakened.

Someone might know I sent a boob pic in September last year. Who cares?

Do you want your employer to know what porn you watch? Do you want your partner to know what porn you watch, for that matter? People with access to this data will know everything about you, giving them the power to abuse this.

Employees at your internet service provider will know everything you’ve looked at and, if compromised, this could lead to blackmail, public smearing, and humiliation.

Remember when it came out that the Met police kept records of journalists’ sexual preferences, medical records and general dirt to be used against them if they got too close to investigations? The snoopers’ charter isn’t exactly preventing this from continuing.

While we can’t yet know to what extent this will affect us all individually, we do know that humans aren’t made of fairy dust and sun beams. The more people know about what you do, the more likely that abuse can occur. Whether it’s politician’s smearing each other, celebrity dirt being released to the public or the names of Ashley Madison members published for general consumption.

But seriously, can they see if I’ve texted something filthy?

Firstly, why would anyone want to see that? Unless, of course, it’s amid discussions on how to make a bomb. Secondly, an internet connection record ‘will only show that they accessed the site, not the particular pages they looked at, who they communicated with, or what they said,’ according to Theresa May.

So yes, they’ll be able to read your messages.

Does it help catch criminals, though?

A study in the US found that mass metadata (which is what the government wants ISPs to store) has helped in, at the very most, 1.8% of cases. On the other hand, if that 1.8% includes terrorists who want to blow something up then it’s difficult to dismiss it as useless.

Thing is, if everyone knows that digital communications aren’t safe, then terrorists will probably stop using it to communicate. They’re not total morons.

But there are fears it could just drive them underground, making it almost impossible to track what’s going on as face-to-face conversations leave no imprint, no matter how many text messages you’ve got stored in your big fancy storage system.

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Follow Stevie on Twitter: @5tevieM

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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