The UK government’s proposed surveillance legislation is “worse than scary”, the United Nations privacy chief has said.
Joseph Cannataci, the UN’s special rapporteur on privacy, attacked the government’s draft Investigatory Powers Bill, saying he had never seen evidence that mass surveillance works. He also accused MPs of leading an “absolute offensive” and an “orchestrated” media campaign to distort the debate and take hold of new powers.
The comments came during a live streamed keynote presentation at the Internet Governance Forum in Brazil, where leading experts from around the world have gathered to discuss the future of the internet and web policy.
In a wide-ranging presentation and discussion panel Cannataci — who has previously said the UK’s digital surveillance is similar to George Orwell’s 1984 — discussed the state of surveillance and privacy around the world. Pausing to briefly talk about the Home Office’s new bill, but without going deeply into detail, Cannataci said: “The snoopers’ charter in the UK is just a bit worse than scary, isn’t it.”
He went on to say one of the “misleading comments that has been made in the UK parliament” is that people shouldn’t worry about the bill, which will see communications service providers be forced to retain everyone’s website data for up to 12 months.
Under the bill, as it currently stands, police and surveillance agencies will be able to access the metadata — the who, what, when, and where of communications, but not their content — of websites suspected criminals have visited, without a warrant. Cannataci said that the ability to intercept communications now is completely different to when original surveillance legislation was passed, and that metadata is still important.
“What we’re talking about here is the context, and the context is completely different. When those laws were put into place there was no internet or the internet was not used in the way it is today,” he said.
“It is the golden age of surveillance, they’ve never had so much data. I am just talking about metadata, I haven’t got down to content.” The Home Office has said that authorities will only access internet connection records on a “case-by-case basis and only where it was necessary and proportionate” to do so.
Also included in the bill are two new levels of judicial oversight, which will see judges reviewing the surveillance decisions of ministers — which officials have said is part of a “world leading” oversight system.
Upon announcing the bill in the House of Commons last week Home Secretary Theresa May said the new legislation was being introduced to ensure surveillance laws are “modern, fit for purpose and can respond to emerging threats as technology advances”.
Cannataci said he was pleased that the UK was now open to having a debate about its surveillance powers and had laid its cards on the table. He said that this was better than the situation in many other countries. The Home Office argues that nothing new is being introduced by the law.
As part of the documentation with the proposed legislation the government confirmed it had been using previous laws to collect vast amounts of data about phone calls for the previous ten years, as reported by the BBC.
“I won’t mince my words, but many governments at this moment in time are putting in new laws to legitimise that which they are already doing or which that they had to do,” Cannataci said, although not directly speaking about the UK at the time.
“Mass surveillance is alive and well but governments are finding ways of making that the law of the land.
“It can be necessary and proportionate to have targeted surveillance and what I am saying is that there’s not yet any evidence which convinces me that it is necessary and proportionate to have mass surveillance.”
The Investigatory Powers bill, which will now be scrutinised by a committee of MPs, also legitimises bulk data collection and the ability for intelligent services to hack the phones and computers of those who are suspected of crimes including terrorism.
It was published following several weeks of promotion and anonymous briefings by government officials, which included the first ever live radio interview by a boss of Mi5, and a Times reporter being allowed into GCHQ.
“We’re now at the stage where for the first time we have an absolute offensive,” said Cannataci as he commented on the promotion of the bill.
“Just do a media analysis ladies and gentlemen, do a media analysis of the way the British establishment is trotting out news about the law and the need for the law and ask yourselves the question ‘If this is not orchestrated then what is?'”
Theresa May, as she announced the bill, said: “We are setting out a modern legal framework which brings together current powers in a clear and comprehensible way”.
“This new legislation will underpin the work of law enforcement and the security and intelligence agencies for years to come. It is their licence to operate — with the democratic approval of Parliament — to protect our national security and the public’s safety.”