Wide-ranging surveillance powers which passed into law yesterday will undermine our “fundamental rights” and have “no place in a modern democracy”, the inventor of the internet, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, has said.
The Investigatory Powers Bill, which was yesterday given Royal Assent, extends the powers of GCHQ, MI6, MI5, and the police to hack into people’s computers with a warrant, but without their knowledge, as well as requiring internet service providers (ISPs) to keep a record of every internet user’s browsing history for twelve months for use by a range of government agencies and public bodies.
Berners-Lee was unequivocal about the law: “This snoopers charter has no place in a modern democracy – it undermines our fundamental rights online,” he told the BBC.
The bulk collection of internet browsing data is “disproportionate”, he added, and creates a “security nightmare” for the internet providers who must store the data, as well as riding “roughshod over our right to privacy”.
At the same time, he said, “bulk hacking powers” included in the law make the internet “less safe for everyone”.
The Bill received widespread condemnation as it passed through the Houses of Parliament, most notably from privacy campaigners, but Berners-Lee acknowledged that little heed was paid by MPs at the time.
He said they may have failed to properly scrutinise the Bill because it was complicated and they were tied up with other more headline-grabbing matters.
“MPs were asked to review an incredibly complex Bill with over 500 pages of supporting documents in a tight timescale while other seismic political events were unfolding around them,” he said. “The fact that most MPs are not technologists likely also played a role – they may simply not have understood just how intrusive the laws they were considering were.”
Upon the passing of the Bill into law on Tuesday, Home Secretary Amber Rudd said in a statement: “This Government is clear that, at a time of heightened security threat, it is essential our law enforcement, security and intelligence services have the powers they need to keep people safe.
“The internet presents new opportunities for terrorists and we must ensure we have the capabilities to confront this challenge. But it is also right that these powers are subject to strict safeguards and rigorous oversight.
“The Investigatory Powers Act is world-leading legislation that provides unprecedented transparency and substantial privacy protection.”
However, the data gathered will be available to far more than just the military, police, and security services.
The Act hands powers of access to 48 public agencies including HM Revenue and Customs, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Food Standards Authority, and even the ambulance services for England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, allowing them all review to a years’ worth of internet browsing data for any British citizen upon request.
Berners-Lee is not the only respected person to have opposed the Act. Last November Joseph A. Cannataci, the UN special rapporteur for privacy, called the bill “worse than scary” and encouraged the government to rethink its “disproportionate, privacy-intrusive measures such as bulk surveillance and bulk hacking”.
A petition calling on the government to repeal the Act has gained more than 145,000 signatures within a week.