A FEW YEARS AGO, it would have been unthinkable for the British government to admit that it was hacking into people’s computers and collecting private data on a massive scale. But now, these controversial tactics are about to be explicitly sanctioned in an unprecedented new surveillance law.
Last week, the U.K.’s Parliament approved the Investigatory Powers Bill, dubbed the “Snoopers’ Charter” by critics. The law, which is expected to come into force before the end of the year, was introduced in November 2015 after the fallout from revelations by National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden about extensive British mass surveillance. The Investigatory Powers Bill essentially retroactively legalizes the electronic spying programs exposed in the Snowden documents — and also expands some of the government’s surveillance powers.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the new law is that it will give the British government the authority to serve internet service providers with a “data retention notice,” forcing them to record and store for up to 12 months logs showing websites visited by all of their customers. Law enforcement agencies will then be able to obtain access to this data without any court order or warrant. In addition, the new powers will hand police and tax investigators the ability to, with the approval of a government minister, hack into targeted phones and computers. The law will also permit intelligence agencies to sift through “bulk personal datasets” that contain millions of records about people’s phone calls, travel habits, internet activity, and financial transactions; and it will make it legal for British spies to carry out “foreign-focused” large-scale hacks of computers or phones in order to identify potential “targets of interest.”
“Every citizen will have their internet activity — the apps they use, the communications they send, and to who — logged for 12 months,” says Eric King, a privacy expert and former director of Don’t Spy On Us, a coalition of leading British human rights groups that campaigns against mass surveillance. “There is no other democracy in the world, possibly no other country in the world, doing this.”