November 2016 saw MPs voting in favour of a new surveillance law that has been strongly opposed by privacy campaigners in the UK. The Investigatory Powers Act passed into law at the end of November, having originally been proposed by Prime Minister Theresa May in her previous role as Home Secretary.
One of the most heavily criticised aspects of the act is that individuals’ internet browsing history, regardless of whether or not they are suspected of a crime, will now have to be kept on record by broadband providers for 12 months.
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What does the Investigatory Powers Act mean?
The new legislation will give a wide range of government agencies far greater ability to obtain information relating to individuals’ use of phones and, in particular, the internet.
Ministers will be given the power to sign off warrants permitting more in-depth surveillance of suspected criminals, while the likes of MI5 and GCHQ will be given free rein to collect personal communications data such as phone records and internet browsing history – activities which these agencies are suspected of having carried out in the past without official legal backing.
The act also forces companies such as internet service providers (ISPs) to keep their customers’ web browsing history available for investigation for up to a year.
Why has the law been introduced?
Ministers say the act is necessary to protect the UK from the threat of terrorist attacks. A Home Office spokesman said: “The 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 spokesman added that the obligation for ISPs to hold browsing record is simply to enable law enforcement officials to keep track of the communication methods – for example, web-based email or social media – used by suspects.
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What do opponents say?
Campaigners have labelled the legislation a “snoopers’ charter”. Jim Killock, executive director of privacy organisation the Open Rights Group, said the act was “one of the most extreme surveillance laws ever passed in a democracy” and added that it meant police and other agencies had “unprecedented powers to surveil our private communications and internet activity, whether or not we are suspected of a crime”.
What does the Snoopers' Charter mean for internet users?
The government’s view is basically that anyone who is not engaging in criminal activity should have nothing to fear from this new legislation. However, many law-abiding citizens may resent the fact that the state has increased powers to access their internet history.
In practical terms, it could be worth thinking twice before clicking on links – perhaps contained in social media posts – to what might be described as dubious websites, such as those containing extreme political views.
Bear in mind that using your browser’s “private” or “incognito” browsing mode will not stop your ISP from recording which sites you actually visit: this simply means that a record of your browsing history while in private mode is not stored on your computer.
If you wish to avoid your ISP having a record of the sites you visit, it is possible to use a service known as a virtual private network (VPN). This does however require a fair level of technical know-how to set up and may be seen by some internet users as a rather extreme step to take.
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