The U.K.'s Plan to 'Reform' Citizen Surveillance: More, More, More!

Proposal would make policy out of what they had been secretly doing all along.


Got their eye on U.(K.)
GCHQ headquarters

It's impossible to write about government surveillance of citizens in Western countries without mentioning Edward Snowden. He's the reason we know as much as we do about government bulk collection of data about citizens in the United States, United Kingdom and other places.

As a direct result of Snowden's leaked information in the United States, we're replacing the domestic mass surveillance data collection with a system devised under the USA FREEDOM Act that restricts it (though, sadly, doesn't eliminate it entirely). No more bulk collection of all Americans' smart phone metadata from phone companies. Instead companies will store the data and the feds will have to provide more restrictive search terms to access the data. The data still doesn't have full Fourth Amendment protections, though.

The United Kingdom has its own surveillance systems and obviously its own laws. Today officials in the U.K. are announcing their reform plans in the wake of what Snowden has revealed, and they seem to have decided to lean into it. Rather than being ashamed of its mass surveillance, leaders want to embrace it and essentially make data collection of all its citizens a formal, legally enacted policy.

From The Guardian (the media outlet that broke the Snowden story back in the day):

New surveillance powers will be given to the police and security services, allowing them to access records tracking every UK citizen's use of the internet without any judicial check, under the provisions of the draft investigatory powers bill unveiled by [Home Secretary] Theresa May.

It includes new powers requiring internet and phone companies to keep "internet connection records" – tracking every website visited but not every page – for a maximum of 12 months but will not require a warrant for the police, security services or other bodies to access the data. Local authorities will be banned from accessing internet records.

The proposed legislation will also introduce a "double-lock" on the ministerial approval of interception warrants with a new panel of seven judicial commissioners – probably retired judges – given a veto before they can come into force.

But the details of the bill make clear that this new safeguard for the most intrusive powers to spy on the content of people's conversations and messages will not apply in "urgent cases" – defined as up to five days – where judicial approval is not possible.

May seems to be taking the "it's just metadata, not real information" attitude toward critics, even though there's been plenty of evidence at this point that metadata provides loads of real information about indviduals. If it didn't, why would governments be so insistent on collecting it?

Snowden has been tweeting his criticism of the proposal, calling it "the most intrusive and least accountable surveillance regime in the West."

Read more about the U.K.'s snooping proposal here, and read more about previous British Web surveillance revelations here