Silkie Carlo is a policy officer for Liberty, the National Council for Civil Liberties in the UK.
It’s one of many NGOs campaigning against the Investigatory Powers Act. She tells Valerie Gauriat why her organisation believes the new mass surveillance law should be amended.
“In the previous surveillance legislation that we had in the UK, it wasn’t foreseeable that we would have a structure of mass surveillance, encompassing the communications of the country.
But with the investigatory powers act, there is a very explicit commitment from government to basically be conducting indiscriminate, suspicion-less mass surveillance of the population.
It’s the first piece of legislation, I think anywhere, that sets out an intention, and the ability, to record the text message we send to each other, to intercept every phone call and every email, to scan it, without suspicion.
It also is the first piece of legislation we’re aware of that enables the government to conduct mass hacking. The hacking of hundreds of potentially hundreds of thousands of people, just to maintain an ability to continually intercept our communications. So it really is a unique piece of legislation, setting a precedent that could be followed by numerous countries around the world, to basically treat all citizens as suspects.
“Basic safeguards are missing”
There are some really basic safeguards that are missing from the Investigatory Powers law.
For example we lobbied the government to put in a threshold of reasonable suspicion before you can use an extremely intrusive surveillance power, like hacking for example.
But there was real resistance to that. We also argued that the powers should only be used in the instances of serious crime. But it remains that our communications data, who we email, who we call, who we text and when, and all of our internet activity can be accessed for non serious crime purposes. For lower level policing purposes.
So the necessary safeguards are distinctively missing from this legislation. There isn’t even the need to identify the targets of surveillance powers. So police and intelligence agencies can hack a computer or hack thousands of computers, without needing to identify who the targets are.
In addition, they don’t have to notify the targets of surveillance after the conduct has taken place.
Which means that there will be thousands of people that have been affected by surveillance, that might have had their private lives intruded on, their phones hacked, their calls intercepted, that don’t know about it and that never will.
The only circumstances in which they might know about it is if there is a “serious error” taken place in part of the State. But what we do know is that a serious error wouldn’t be for example a breach of someone’s human rights. Apparently that’s not serious enough. So the circumstances in which someone will ever know that they’ve been surveiled are sort of unpredictable at the moment, and unforeseeable. So this is a kind of growth of a secret State in a very kind of undemocratic framework that we are fighting against.
“Creating a bank of data on innocent people is a massive waste of money”
Lots of technical experts have questioned whether mass surveillance is a feasible option for policing. And I think the short answer is no. It’s not. We’ve seen in pilot attempts to monitor the internet activity of all citizens in Denmark, hundreds of millions of pounds were spent on this attempt, and it was of no use at all to the police. Having this vast amount of data on what people were doing online, was no use to the police.
Now obviously any criminal intent on using the internet for their crime can do so anonymously quite easily, there are ways to do that. So by spying on the visible internet activity of tens of millions of people, you’re really creating a bank of data on innocent people. And unfortunately I think this will be a massive waste of money.
The worry is what else can be done with the data. Well you can find out what people’s political interests are, what their medical concerns are, you can have enormous insights into ordinary people’s lives, using this data.
That might not be the intention of the current government but it might be the intention of a future government. And as we‘ve seen with the Trump example, you can have a democratically elected leader who wants to use the political activity of people as a kind of indicator of interest to the State. And we think that shouldn’t be possible.
If citizens have nothing to hide, and most of us don’t, then there should be nothing of interest for the government to look at.
And for that reason we think they should be out of our communications and out of our private lives.
We should have nothing to fear in a fully functioning democracy, of surveillance activities of the state. However, what we’re seeing at the moment is attempts to use indiscriminate surveillance for the wrong reasons.
The use of surveillance is not restricted to serious crime. And that’s one of the reasons the previous surveillance legislation was found to be unlawful.
When you see politicians like president Donald Trump, committing to using this arsenal of mass surveillance powers to surveil all mosks, or to investigate all anti-racism activists, the really we have to stop in our tracks, and say, are these powers safe things to have in a democracy ?
And the court of justice of the European union, in its recent ruling on our old legislation DRIPA, said no. These are not necessary, and not justifiable powers to have in a democracy. They are ripe for abuse.
The UK government needs to make some really urgent changes to the Investigatory Powers Act, following the Court of Justice of the Europeans Union’s ruling, on a previous legislation, we know that vast amounts of the Investigatory Powers Act are unlawful.
We know that it’s unlawful to have bulk retention of communications records, without suspicion, that can be accessed for low level crime and administrative purposes. And we know it’s unlawful that public bodies, authorities, the police, are self-authorizing their access to those records. So all of those powers have been replicated in the Investigatory Powers Act, and they’ve also been expanded.
Now the government has given itself the ability to create records of all of our internet activity.
So the government would do well to quickly, urgently change and amend vast amounts of the Investigatory Powers Act. And certainly we’re going to be challenging the government in court on the Act, because it’s so plainly unlawful.”