The Snooper's Charter. Explained.

With the Conservatives now in majority control of the UK parliament the Communications Data Bill (dubbed the Snooper's Charter by opponents) has been a hot topic of conversation in the press. 

Soon after the results of the election two months ago Home Secretary reiterated that she would be pushing through the bill in the Autumn. But will it affect you? Yes, quite a lot actually. 

What is the Snooper's Charter? 

The charter requires Internet service providers and mobile phone companies to maintain records of each user's browsing activity, inclusive of social media, instant messaging, voice calls etc - and store records for 12 months. It would also require any encrypted messaging services, such as WhatsApp, to create a back channel for government forces so records can be accessed for investigations.

Cameron and the government strongly believe these powers are needed to save lives. The justification is that communications traffic data is needed for investigation. The Home Office is expecting access to data to decline from 80% to 60%, but for traffic data to grow by 1000% - leaving a black hole in monitoring and a "safe space" for terrorists.

What does it mean for the average Joe? 

f nothing changes then Joe will stop receiving access to iMessage, WhatsApp, Snapchat and Facebook Messenger. In theory this will be in exchange for greater safety from terrorists, but some reports have debated this. 

On a broader level it means reduced privacy and a larger risk of data theft. With far more data being stored by companies that wasn't before, and with back channels being required as part of the legislation, there is a real fear that this will attract more cyber crime. In a YouGov poll in 2012 on the charter over 70% of respondents said they do not trust that the data about their internet usage will be kept secure.

It's also intrusive. Despite not being able to see message contents, a huge amount can still be deduced by authorities. As Emma Carr writes: 

For example, from communications data it is possible to deduce a significant degree of someone’s personality, habits and condition - whether that be visiting a place of worship (location data every Sunday at 10am, for example) or accessing legal advice (divorce law firm) or support (Samaritans via e-mail, or and Alcoholics Anonymous website).
— Emma Carr, The Independent

And for businesses? 

For any business dealing with data or communications, they will now have a legal obligation keep some record of these for 12 months. For those not its main impact will be the affect it may have on your social channels. If you are using a Snapchat account for your brand just be aware it may not function in a few weeks!

Won't the likes of WhatsApp just concede?

It's quite possible that the platform may just change how it works in the UK. It's owner, Facebook complies with roughly 75% of government data requests, relatively high. As such there is a history of mutual benefit. However WhatsApp itself has been pushing its encrypted messaging very strongly - and positioned the feature as an integral part of the brands moral fibre. It may take a stand and if it does so it will be a huge push for the "no" campaign. 

Apple also has a strong record of compliance to government legislation. But again, Apple also has a brand associated with rights and ethical behaviour. If it wished it could very well throw its hat in the ring and create another strong blow for the bill. 

Is this actually as "Orwellian" as people say?


People throw around "1984" quite a lot with legislation like this, and many respond with a roll of the eyes. It tends to be from a misinterpretation on both sides. 1984 wasn't about a society where everyone was being watched, it was from a society where everyone could be watched - and therefore the public behaved entirely differently. This charter does indeed suggest that the Government could monitor all online conversations no matter how small the offence - and that's something to worry about. It could, in the hands of a power hungry government, be used to crush or monitor dissenters. (At this point it's worth mentioning that dissent isn't always a bad thing, see this TED talk to understand why)

It's important to note that the events that have been used to push this legislation, the Lee Rigby and Charlie Hebdo tragedies, were not caused by lack of intelligence, but instead by limited manpower. The bill does nothing to address this and has received criticism to this effect. 

There is of course a question mark as to the enforceability of such a bill. Simply removing the services from the UK will not only make the government look incredibly draconian (and be reminiscent of Chinese state censorship), but will also fly in the face of the "Digital UK" message that the government is pushing. 

It is hard to find an article on the internet in support of the act. There are a few, but they are certainly the minority. Clearly May will have a huge fight on her hands in the coming months, and she'll need to work carefully to ensure that this doesn't change into a far more serious public outcry.