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Snoopers’ Charter: Turning coders into coppers isn’t the answer

by Harry Curtis

A plotline in the last season of House of Cards sees the dashing Republican presidential nominee, Will Conway, lambasted for manipulating voters’ internet searches using a friend’s search engine. The electoral potential of this scheme almost pushes the Underwoods out of the race. While politics in this country right now may have more in common with Game of Thrones than House of Cards, it’s striking to see how close to reality TV is getting as the Investigatory Powers Bill makes its way through Parliament.

The Bill, which has been totally overshadowed by Brexit-related upheaval, will force phone and web companies to store their customers’ browsing records for 12 months for access by the police and security services. It also means these companies will be legally obliged to help the authorities bypass encryptions and insert bugs if required.

This is entirely the wrong move. Leaving aside concerns around hacking and data breaches, it will force tech companies into an uncomfortable and unfair position of having to police their own customers’ activity. How this impairs their business model will become apparent when the Bill becomes law. But it will no doubt breach consumers’ trust and confidence immediately.

Attempts to characterise these records as no different than an itemised phone bill are wide of the mark. Edward Snowden had it right when he said it’s more like a “list of every book you've ever opened.” Now Snowden may not be a neutral observer when it comes to government data practices, but he’s not the only one to register his objections.

Earlier this year Nicola Blackwood MP, chair of the Commons Science and Technology committee warned the government to urgently review the bill, saying: "Without further refinement, there could be many unintended consequences for commerce arising from the current lack of clarity of the terms and scope of the legislation.”

This echoes a chorus of disapproval from tech giants Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, and Yahoo who joined forces against the Bill, stating it “could have far reaching implications - for our customers, for your own citizens, and for the future of the global technology industry." It’s difficult to overstate the significance of rival multinational companies being united in opposition to a law in a single country.

If the Bill gets Royal Assent, as it almost certainly will, it will hold telecoms companies between a rock and a hard place. They would be in no position to disregard the law, but in going along with it they’d probably damage user confidence in their services beyond repair. And attempts to enforce UK laws on foreign companies – say ones originating in Silicon Valley – could lead other governments to do likewise. UK companies abroad might find themselves having to retain and provide data to satisfy overseas governments. The need to balance security and liberty is very real and pressing, but forcing technology gatekeepers to become prison guards is not the way to get there. Ultimately if Frank Underwood would approve of the law, perhaps it’s not the right choice.

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