Here's why people are so worked up about the 'Snooper's Charter'

Do you know what the Investigatory Powers Bill is?

If so, you’re in the minority: A whopping 72% of Britons don’t know anything about the British spying bill, which is currently in the process of making its way through parliament. (Included within that figure, 52% of British adults have never even heard of it.)

That’s according to a new ComRes poll commissioned by Liberty, a human rights pressure group which is battling against the controversial proposals.

So what’s all the fuss about?

Simply put, the Investigatory Powers Bill (IPBill) — referred to as the “Snooper’s Charter” by its critics — is an attempt by Britain’s Conservative government to update Britain’s spying laws for the twentieth century.

Right now, the actions of the UK’s spy agencies are governed by a mishmash of legal interpretations of various laws. But technology is rapidly advancing, meaning that laws written decades ago aren’t necessarily well suited for the modern reality of problems like the legality of “equipment interference” — state-sanctioned hacking — or mass collection of citizens’ internet data.

The IPBill will aim to clearly provide a legal basis for British spooks’ actions for the first time — making the law fit for purpose in the twenty-first century.

Amongst other things, the legislation would require telecoms and communications companies to store communications data on all Britons for a year. This ranges from records of calls to emails.

It’s a stipulation that has proved highly controversial, with rights groups and activists — like Liberty, Open Rights Group, and Privacy International — arguing that the government should not be indiscriminately collecting the communications data of citizens who are not suspected of committing any crime.

Britain’s move to update its spying laws like this is fairly forward-thinking — and activists fear that it could set a dangerous precedent, empowering authoritarian regimes around the world to make similar demands as they seek to control their populations.

There have also been concerns that the IPBill could force businesses to weaken encryption into their products and software. The UK government publicly insists that it doesn’t want to weaken encryption — but some claim that the wording of the bill will require just that.

Another point of contention is “equipment interference.” UK spies already use hacking when necessary to carry out their work, but the bill will put the technique on firmer legal footing. Activists want to ensure there are adequate safeguards put in place: It is, Open Rights Group says, “an extremely intrusive form of surveillance. It can yield information sufficient to build a total profile of a person, from his daily movements to his most intimate thoughts. It is potentially far more probing than techniques traditionally classified … as ‘intrusive surveillance’.”

It’s not just activists who have been critical of the bill. Three parliamentary committees have been critical of the “Snooper’s Charter” during the process of its formulation and examination by parliament.

The most recent report, in February, questioned the technical viability of some aspects of the bill, saying: “We recommend that more effort should be made to reflect not only the policy aims but also the practical realities of how the internet works on a technical level.”

Theresa May, the Conservative home secretary, has been forced to make some concessions in an attempt to guarantee the bill’s passage. For example, there has been a privacy clause added, The Guardian reports, which would prevent the use of mass surveillance techniques when there are other options available.

It is set to be debated in the House of Commons this week — but even if passed, could face further trouble in the House of Lords, with Liberal Democrats planning to try and force through further changes.

Want to read more? The full Investigatory Powers Bill — all 258 pages of it — is below:

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