The UK is about to become one of the world’s foremost surveillance states, allowing its police and intelligence agencies to spy on its own people to a degree that is unprecedented for a democracy. The UN’s privacy chief has called the situation “worse than scary.” Edward Snowden says it’s simply “the most extreme surveillance in the history of western democracy.”
The legislation in question is called the Investigatory Powers Bill. It’s been cleared by politicians and awaits only the formality of royal assent before it becomes law. The bill will legalize the UK’s global surveillance program, which scoops up communications data from around the world, but it will also introduce new domestic powers, including a government database that stores the web history of every citizen in the country. UK spies will be empowered to hack individuals, internet infrastructure, and even whole towns — if the government deems it necessary.
Although the UK’s opposition Labour Party originally put forward strong objections to the bill, these never turned into real opposition. The combination of a civil war between different factions in Labour and the UK’s shock decision to leave the European Union means the bill was never given politicians’ — or the country’s — full attention. Instead, it will likely inspire similar surveillance laws in other countries. After all, if the UK can do it, why shouldn’t everyone else? And there will be no moderating influence from the US, where the country’s mostly intact surveillance apparatus will soon be handed over to president-elect Donald Trump.
With this global tide of surveillance rising, it’s worth taking a closer look at what exactly is happening in the UK. Here’s our overview of what the Investigatory Powers Bill entails:
A NATION’S BROWSER HISTORY AND A SEARCH ENGINE TO MATCH
The UK government will keep a record of every website every citizen visits for up to a year, with this information also including the apps they use on their phone, and the metadata of their calls. This information is known as internet connection records, or ICRs, and won’t include the exact URL of each site someone visits, but the base domain. For this particular webpage, for example, the government would know you went to www.theverge.com, the time you visited, how long you stayed, your IP address, and some information about your computer — but no individual pages.
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