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Yesterday, I read an article, titled “The UK is secretly testing a controversial web snooping tool”. The article outlines yet another tool designed to spy on us and this time it has been being tested in secret by our government. The contents of the article were not remotely surprising, and in fact I already expected that this tactic was already being employed by the state. After reading the wired article, I felt it prudent to bring it to the attention of Local Matters’ readers. This is yet another example of an oversized state working with corporations to crush your civil rights. If you wish to oppose this, short of leaving the internet you are left powerless to oppose it.

To understand what’s happening now, we have to look back at 2016, when a bill called ‘The Investigatory Powers Act 2016’ was passed into law. This act, dubbed ‘The Snoopers’ Charter’ strengthened and combined a number of previous acts which allowed the government to spy on people for various reasons. The issue with The Snoopers’ Charter was that it made it very easy for the government to spy and bulk-collect data on innocent people. They have the legal sanctioning to collect data on law abiding citizens like you or I. The act was so powerful that Edward Snowden, a popular US Whistle-blower who exposed illegal NSA Spying, commented on the act saying “The UK has just legalized the most extreme surveillance in the history of western democracy. It goes farther than many autocracies.”. As a result of this act and other efforts taken by the infamous GCHQ, the UK’s counterpart to the better-known NSA, the UK has been described as one of, if not the worst democracy for privacy rights, in the world. Many civil liberty groups and human rights groups have been ardent critics of what the UK government has been doing.

Additionally, The Snoopers’ Charter, while requiring some protections such as forcing government agencies to stand before a judge before reviewing data does not require a noteable amount of transparency with the public. Thus our government could be developing more ways to spy on us and compromise our privacy, and we wouldn’t even know it. This refers to my previous article on how to take back your privacy, which is vital in today’s world. 

So, is our government secretly testing out new ways to spy on us?

Truthfully, we don’t know much about it. Wired contacted several large telecommunication providers such as BT, Virgin Media, Sky and Three who all either refused to comment or did not respond to the request for information. Wired claim:

“Industry sources say that service providers are hampered by the law saying they can’t talk about data they are collecting. Such secrecy, sources argue, risks the development and scrutiny of the systems. One section of the Investigatory Powers Act says that telecoms companies, or people connected to them, are not allowed to talk about the “existence or contents” of any orders telling them to keep people’s internet data. One person says there is secrecy “to the point where they can’t even talk between industry experts in different organisations to share knowledge around best practice”.”

So we know that there is a lot of secrecy around the collection of data, but worse still, the new system is creating ‘Internet Connection Records’ (ICRs) which could log every connection to the internet that every person makes. The system has already been in testing for two years with significant funding. These records, under The Snoopers’ Charter, can be held for up to a year and, as a requirement, given to telecommunication providers. We also know that these ICRs are storing meta-data.

At first, meta-data does not sound so bad; it’s data about data. So if you connect to thelocalists.org, for example, they might store data about how that connection was made. They also might store where you were when it was made, your location, the time you spent on the site, the time you connected, what IP address you connected from, and it is possible that they could store whether or not you have any other connections with people when connecting to sites. The list goes on and on. Meta-data is any information surrounding the initial piece of data.

To explain the severity of this the CIA were actually caught illegally kidnapping people in Europe from meta-data which the police obtained from phone records. Meta-data can create a very telling picture of your online and even offline life as it builds up. So the ICRs are not just about the sites you connect to – the government can start to build up a big picture of your life from all of the additional data.

Beyond this, we do not know very much more. We know vast records of data are being created on countless individuals. We know this data can be held for up to a year and that, according to an old guardian article, The Snoopers’ Charter has had a budget of £175 million. We cannot predict how expansive this project will become, whose data is actually going to be swept up, or how it will be used.

To conclude, I would like to reiterate my statement from a previous article:

“As corporations and governments get in bed with each other, we are swiftly heading towards a soft techno-totalitarian world, and due to our infatuation with technology in addition to our unwillingness to begin to limit our consumption, we remain powerless and at the mercy of our governments and the corporations they serve.” – Localism and Technology