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The Life of P

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Creeping Authoritarianism: The Investigatory Powers Act

The most important thing about this post is that I rewrote it multiple times and considered not posting it at all, because I was concerned about how it might be perceived and whether its recommendations might have ramifications in the future. Once you read it, that thought alone should be terrifying.

With the Labour party in disarray and the population distracted by Brexit, the Investigatory Powers Act has now passed both houses. Media coverage has been inexplicably scant. The Act permits a wide range of snooping and hacking by the security services, allowing unprecedented surveillance of citizens for a democratic country. Theresa May pushed this legislation (dubbed the “Snoopers’ Charter”) as Home Secretary, so it is little surprise that she has forged ahead despite opposition from groups like Liberty and warnings from a number of commentators including Edward Snowden.

I hope that by now most people reading this will have rejected the idea that “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear”. It is worth revisiting Glen Greenwald’s powerful TED Talk on the subject. This is not paranoia about some perceived theoretical risk. The Snowden revelations demonstrated that the intelligence agencies will take advantage of any information gathering they can get away with, whilst both the Government and the police have demonstrated repeatedly that supposedly anti-terror laws will actually be used whenever convenient. This is why the lack of judicial oversight over access to browsing history should cause serious concern. Most importantly, even if you do trust the current Government, you still should be protecting your privacy. Once a more authoritarian regime takes power, it is too late to claw back what they already hold.

The danger is that authoritarianism occurs in a gradual shift that is easy to overlook as it takes incremental steps. Take, for example, the current Digital Economy Bill which seeks to censor videos that contain a swathe of consensual but non-conventional sex acts. It is entirely unclear why the Government should have any say in such things and it stigmatises private activities enjoyed by a minority. Those of us unaffected by this change should be fighting against it, because it suggests that in future such marginalisation of other minority groups is acceptable based on an arbitrary sense of what is “normal” or “decent”. Now couple this with a regime that also has access to your entire browsing history.


A second major issue with the Investigatory Powers Act is the requirement that companies remove user encryption whenever “practicable”. Many major tech companies have responded robustly about the security implications of creating backdoors in their software, which serve to weaken security for everyone against any malicious attackers. However, the arguments over what is or is not “practicable” for companies to implement will occur in private — without public scrutiny — because the warrants demanding data will invariably contain a gagging order.

Remember also that data leaks by Government bodies are commonplace. The Information Commissioner’s Office lists 54 enforcement actions in just the past two years. Allowing the collection of data also allows the risk of it being released more widely, particularly in light of the Digital Economy Bill’s proposals for data sharing between Government bodies without proper safeguards.

You can petition the Government to repeal the Investigatory Powers Act.

You can write to your MP to prevent the Digital Economy Bill being rushed through.

How do you protect yourself in the meantime? Everyone should be using a Virtual Private Network (or VPN). Here’s a friendly beginner’s guide, but broadly a VPN involves making an encrypted connection to a server which handles all of your online requests. That way no one else, like your Internet Service Provider or others on a public wifi hotspot, can track or eavesdrop on what you are doing. You are still trusting the VPN provider, but this gives much greater control than than trusting one of a few local ISPs, all of which will be subject to requirements imposed by the Investigatory Powers Act. The best way to ensure your privacy is to use a VPN that does not log your traffic so that, even if ordered to, it cannot provide your web history to anyone else. There are a number of different companies offering VPN services relatively cheaply. I recommend NordVPN, given the privacy features outlined above coupled with easy-to-use clients for Windows, OSX, iOS and Android, so little technical knowledge is required.

If you know that you will never, ever have anything to hide from anyone else at all, then you have nothing to fear. And a level of clairvoyance that I sincerely envy.

Photographing London Demonstrations

Some quick advice to answer some questions I’ve been asked about photographing tomorrow’s G20 demonstrations in London (with the usual caveat that none of this should be construed as legal advice). Generally speaking, if you’re in a public place you can photograph whatever happens to be going on. Privacy doesn’t really apply since in a public demonstration neither the demonstrators nor the police have any reasonable expectation of privacy. Equally merely photographing a demonstration is unlikely to amount to a breach of the peace.

However some amendments to the Counter-Terrorism Act in February this year could affect photographers’ relationship with the police. With some very poor, wide drafting, typical of the current government, the new rules catch anyone eliciting information regarding members of the armed services, intelligence services or police which is “of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism”. This potentially covers photographing police officers and we are just expected to trust that the statute will not be abused. An easy non-lawyer article summarises the change.

The G20 demonstrations clearly are not linked to terrorism so calmly explaining that should diffuse any attempt to stop you under the Counter-Terrorism laws. The chief issue is often misinformed police officers who genuinely misunderstand what photographers are allowed to do. In that respect I highly recommend everyone print and keep a copy of this UK photographers rights leaflet in their camera case to help them explain if questioned.

Common sense should prevail, particularly since the police are understandably likely to be tense: if you see problems likely to occur, don’t argue, take a step back and move elsewhere. If the police try to search you, complying is usually best, although they should not have any right to seize your equipment to my knowledge. Make it clear you are there as an observer rather than being confused as part of the demonstration to avoid breach of the peace accusations. Good luck!

Obsoletion is the Answer

It was galling to see the 42-day detention Bill pass a Commons vote despite significant opposition. I remain hopeful that the Lords will stall its progress and that it will fail any further attempts. Nevertheless the fact it could pass at all highlights that the worrying trend we have seen in poorly conceived “anti-terror” legislation is not stopping. Unless of course the government’s cunning plan is to make terrorists obsolete by doing their job for them.

Many bemused Americans are actually taking an opportunity to throw stones, apparently heedless of their glass house. 42 days is, after all, still better than 6+ years and counting. Admittedly that’s in a Cuban holiday resort or however it is they refer to Guantanamo these days. The truth is, of course, that this is simply another Act in the security theatre engulfing both our countries — not merely the erosion of civil liberties, but rather the erosion for high profile ideas that bear no ostensible benefits at all. If those additional days save a single life, I think everyone — including those who drafted the Bill — would be very, very surprised.

Firefox 3 has been dated for a June 17th release. I’ve been using the stable Release Candidates for a while now, and I can thoroughly recommend the new version. Improvements are less dramatic than earlier milestone releases but the focus here is under the hood like memory management, combined with a focus on smaller details. Drawing attention in the address bar to the identity information of the site you are browsing is a good example of a simple security measure that will greatly increase use. Meanwhile Firefox is also venturing into the mobile arena with a concept video of the user interface for a new mobile version of the browser, designed specifically for small touch screen devices. This is only a concept with a real product still some way off.

"Luck is the residue of design."

(CC) BY-NC 2004-2021 Priyan Meewella

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