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UK Snoopers' Charter crashes through critics into the next level

Plans to write mass surveillance into law face a bumpy ride

IPB The Investigatory Powers Bill – better known as the Snoopers' Charter – has passed its second reading in the UK Parliament amid fierce criticism.

There were 281 votes in favor and 15 opposed. All the main opposition parties decided to abstain from voting rather than oppose the bill.

The proposed law – which would in effect legalize the mass surveillance systems revealed by Edward Snowden, albeit with a few additional safeguards – has faced fierce criticism by MPs as well as lawyers and civil rights groups.

During the public review session on Tuesday, a number of prominent politicians voiced their strong opposition to the bill, claiming that it was likely illegal and did not include sufficient safeguards.

Most critical was the spokesperson for the Scottish National Party (SNP), Joanna Cherry QC, who called the bill a "rushed job" and said it needed "extensive amendments" before the SNP could support it.

Cherry highlighted concerns from others, including a recent report from the UN's special rapporteur on privacy, Joseph Cannataci, who asked the UK government to "outlaw rather than legitimize" the bulk surveillance and hacking provisions it includes.

She also noted that the government has failed to "adequately account" for the reports from no less than three Parliamentary committees who proposed over 100 changes.

She questioned whether the bill, as currently drafted, was even legal under European law, and said it went beyond "what is authorized in other western democracies." And she referred to the letter sent by over 200 senior lawyers that questioned whether the bill was "fit for purpose."

She then gave detailed and specific criticisms of the bill, including the introduction of "vague language" that could be used to expand surveillance by the police, and the fact that it would only require "review" from judges rather than authorization, and that they would only be able to question matters of process rather than content.

Faced with criticism over use of the term "mass surveillance," Cherry proposed that the bill as currently worded would enable "suspicionless surveillance" and as such "impinges unduly on privacy."

Notably, Cherry gave an aggressive response to home secretary Theresa May and said that the SNP would "not be morally blackmailed or bullied" to approve a bill of "dubious legality."

Push back

That speech led to former home secretary Ken Clarke – who is in favor of the bill – saying that the SNP needed to "calm down a bit," while noting that after the second reading, the bill will pass on to the committee stage of review, where changes will be made in response to feedback.

However, Clarke did come out in favor of restricting access to data to only issues of national security. Under the current wording, data access will also be allowed if it is in the "economic well-being" of the country. "I've known some very strange things go on under the banner of 'economic well-being'," said Clarke, who has lengthy experience at the top levels of government.

Stronger criticism came from former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, who said the bill was "not in a fit state" and he would not support it. The law needs to make it clear that the powers will be used only in exceptional cases and feared that they were "capable of misuse." "No other country in the world feels the need to do this, apart from Russia," he noted.

Former shadow home secretary David Davis, who famously quit his high-level position over the erosion of civil liberties, was also strongly critical of the bill, noting that some of its proposals would almost certainly be found illegal and/or unconstitutional in European countries and the United States.

Davis gave a rundown of previous creeping surveillance laws and argued that it was critical that the bill be very clearly defined to avoid future abuses. He noted he also had "about a dozen" other concerns that he would be arguing for at the next stage of the legislation. Regardless, he says a bill was necessary to replace 66 existing pieces of legislation on this issue.

Opposition response

In terms of organized political opposition to the bill, the Labour Party's shadow home secretary Andy Burnham said that the law needed to be "updated" and the bill was a good and necessary way of doing that. He said the bill's nickname of "Snoopers' Charter" was insulting to the people who work to make the country safer, but noted that there needed to be significant improvements made to the wording.

There needs to be better privacy protections, he noted, especially for people with "sensitive professions," ie, lawyers and journalists. That also included MPs – which Burnham says should require explicit approval from the prime minister before their communications are intercepted. There needs to be a "higher hurdle" for access to data, especially internet records, suggesting that it should be done only in cases of "serious crime" rather than simply "crime."

The term "national security" also needs to be defined carefully he said, reflecting comments from numerous other critics. And he also proposed dropping the "economic well-being" test for data access.

He noted that in the past, there had been serious abuse of powers and people have been wrongly put under surveillance, even referencing a case from 1973 when 24 building workers (the Shrewsbury 24) were prosecuted with significant help from the security services. The "murky world" of policing of that time has only emerged with the release of documents surrounding the case.

Burnham and his party's decision not to oppose the bill but to abstain from voting on the second reading was criticized as "gutless" by the Liberal Democrats. Regardless, he argued it was the "responsible" thing for the opposition to do.

The IP Bill will now move on to the committee stage, where it will be reviewed clause by clause, and then it goes to the report stage. Following that, it will get a third reading and then passed on to the House of Lords for review.

In short, it is early days for the law, but the Conservative Party – which holds a slim majority – has made it plain it will push hard for the powers and claims, despite the widespread criticism, that the bill has privacy "baked in."

You can see the whole debate on the Parliament website. ®

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