Controversial ‘spy bill’ passed by UK House of Commons

8 Jun 2016

The spy bill was backed by 444 MPs versus just 69 against

The UK’s House of Commons has passed a controversial bill, known as the Snooper’s Charter by its critics, which gives spy agencies like GCHQ the power to conduct bulk surveillance and hacking powers.

Last night, 444 MPs voted in favour of the Investigatory Powers Bill. Opposition to the “spy bill”, as it has become known, came from just 69 MPs.

The bill will now proceed to the House of Lords.

Future Human

The surveillance of UK citizens’ internet activity was backed in principle by the Labour Party after Home Secretary Theresa May agreed to significant demands.

The new bill is also understood to have ceded to certain demands from civil liberties groups, as well as tech giants, most notably Apple.

During a visit to Ireland, Apple CEO Tim Cook warned last November that the UK spy bill could be a recipe for disaster.

‘This bill would create a detailed profile on each of us which could be made available to hundreds of organisations to speculatively trawl and analyse’

Other tech companies, from Google to Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo, warned that the law could undermine customers faith in their products, while Vodafone was concerned about the UK government being able to hack into its systems and undermine its integrity.

The latest version of the bill makes it clear that companies aren’t required to build backdoors into their encryption.

However, the law could see firms being asked to remove encryption in response to government requests if it is technically feasible.

The bill also includes clauses that infer the UK government will reimburse internet and mobile providers for the cost of retaining records on customers for at least a year.

A country under surveillance

Many surveillance techniques, including the gathering of metadata from telecoms and using malware to access computer and phones, have been in use for some time by UK spy agencies.

One of the sad realities is that the new bill when it becomes law will give spy agencies explicit authority to conduct surveillance on anyone in the UK.

The UK’s leading spy agency GCHQ is in close cahoots with the US NSA and its activity in surveillance against non-US citizens using popular internet services was exposed by rogue NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

GCHQ and NSA are just two out of an intelligence ring comprising other countries like Australia, Canada and New Zealand, otherwise known as “Five Eyes”.

A poll commissioned by civil rights group Liberty has revealed that nine out of 10 British adults believe state surveillance powers proposed by the Investigatory Powers Bill are not acceptable.

90pc of the public either say it is only acceptable for the government to access and monitor records of their emails, text messages, phone calls and online browsing history if they are suspected of or have committed a crime – or say this practice is never acceptable.

“In its effort to expand the surveillance state, the government is already ignoring technology experts, service providers and three cross-party parliamentary committees – but the views of the British public will be harder for even the Home Secretary to dismiss,” said Bella Sankey, director of Policy for Liberty.

“This bill would create a detailed profile on each of us which could be made available to hundreds of organisations to speculatively trawl and analyse. It will all but end online privacy, put our personal security at risk and swamp law enforcement with swathes of useless information.

“The vast majority of people know nothing about this bill but, when asked, overwhelmingly reject this approach – MPs must listen to those they represent, vote against this rotten legislation and give us the effective, targeted system the British people want, need and deserve,” Sankey said.

However, despite these protestations, the bill got the overwhelming backing of the House of Commons.

Palace of Westminster image via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years