Last month, the UK Investigatory Powers Act became law amidst a storm of protest. Better known as the “Snooper’s Charter,” the legislation has faced objections from civil rights activists to porn sites. To put it succinctly, it is the most extensive internet surveillance law ever passed in the UK, giving government agencies and police forces unprecedented permissions to access your online data, store your records, and hack devices in bulk.
Web and phone companies are now required to store the browsing history of their users for 12 months and allow access to government agencies should they demand it. And whilst a petition demanding a parliamentary debate over the passing of the bill reached well over the number of signatures required, just last week the petition page read that “The Petitions Committee has decided not to schedule a debate on this petition.” Ominous? Yes. So is it enough to just sigh, tape up your webcam and always use an incognito tab? Nope.
The issue isn’t so much that the security services and other agencies can access your data – the seriousness of the Snooper’s Charter lies in the fact that they can do this without effective oversight, and the government wants you to know they can. It’s not that security services should never have the right to access personal data – after all, their very purpose is to protect communities and often they may have to use methods that, to the average person, appear questionable– but it is deeply worrying that Theresa May’s government feels the need to suggest that we should all be potentially the next target of these practices for reasons that aren’t fully explained. It’s not enough to shrug and think, “if I have nothing to hide, I have nothing to fear.” Certainly, one would imagine that if you aren’t engaged in security-threatening activity then you should be fine, but unfortunately you are not the judge of what might be considered seditious.
The Snooper’s Charter will hit some communities and particularly professions harder than others. In particular, the Charter has been described as a “a death sentence for investigative journalism” in the UK. Investigative journalism relies on the guaranteed safety and anonymity of sources, and the Snooper’s Charter would give authorities permission to intercept and store information about these sources with no warning.
And why should students care? Well, for one thing it could seriously impact your academic freedom. As Leonie Tanczer, PhD student at Queen's University Belfast wrote in The Guardian – “Digital surveillance poses a real threat to academic freedom. Not only is our engagement with research participants no longer guaranteed to be secure, but the internet we access is increasingly censored.” Just as the integrity of investigative journalism will be compromised, so too will the safety of academic data gathering.
Having an unfree internet and open opportunities for government agencies to have a rummage through your research with potentially vulnerable or anonymous individuals or groups cannot be good for academic freedom and development. Academics are already frequently underprepared for the world of digital security when it comes to gathering and storing sensitive data. Unless it becomes a wake-up call for universities to learn about practical solutions for this issue, the Snooper’s Charter can only lead to this situation getting worse.