The UK's Investigatory Powers Bill report card: “Must try harder”

The British public will not accept a law that treats the Internet, the greatest modern innovation for cultural, economic and social development, as something that must be hacked, tracked, and mined.

Matthew Rice
14 February 2016
Eyes watching your privacy.

Eyes watching your privacy. Shutterstock/ Ziben. All rights reserved.Following the Snowden revelations, the Home Office had an important test to pass. The test had only one question: “Introduce a world class piece of legislation which balances the need for surveillance powers with our essential civil liberties. Discuss”… in 300 pages or less. The Home Office has not learnt their lesson.

The report card for the draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the new proposals to regulate the surveillance powers of the police, intelligence agencies and a wide range of other public bodies into the next decade, is now in. Three committees, three reports, one conclusion later: the Bill isn't ready. It continues to threaten our right to privacy with overly broad powers for intelligence agencies and police, and scant regard for democratic rights.

It’s time to get out the red pen and give some grades to the draft Investigatory Powers Bill. The 123 recommendations spread across the three reports give the Home Office plenty of homework for some of the much needed revision required.

Science and Technology Committee: Grade D

First, the Science and Technology Committee. The confusion surrounding equipment interference – hacking by any other name – isn't just embarrassing but threatening to the security of UK commerce. TechUK, a representative of the UK technology sector has specific concerns about the effect government hacking would have on the business model of many companies in the UK. The Committee concluded that implementing the Bill would be too complex and too expensive. The Bill gets a D from the Science and Technology Committee.

Intelligence and Security Committee: Grade F

The Intelligence and Security Committee, charged with overseeing the policies and practices of intelligence agencies, was even more scathing. By failing to include explicit protections for the right to privacy at the core of the Bill, the Home Office has not done their homework and missed a vital piece of working that reflects poorly on them.

Including wide powers to obtain datasets of innocent individuals, the majority of whom will be of no interest to the Agencies, did not escape the attention of the Committee either. By calling for the removal of these broad powers, and also removal of the intrusive powers for authorising bulk hacking, the Committee is taking a very big, very red pen to the Home Office's work, with a big “not proportionate” scrawled across the page. This is a “must try harder and focus”, an F.

Joint Committee on the draft Investigatory Powers Bill: Grade C 

While not as ferocious as the ISC report, the Joint Committee on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill still had some significant concerns about the draft Bill, with 86 recommendations across its colossal 198 pages. Calling for a removal of the vague authorisation to collect Bulk Personal Datasets and a clearer statement on the effect the Bill has on end-to-end encryption further add to the negative feedback the Home Office are receiving on the Bill.

The Joint Committee is more deferential to the Home Office and the intelligence agencies in their report than the other two committees, but they have nonetheless made more recommendations than the other two put together. While not an F, the verdict is still that this is a below average bill. A soft C from the Joint Committee.

Next steps...or not

Some may say that this draft Bill should continue on its current path which appears to be for publication around Easter. This is the wrong approach. This is a defining piece of legislation, set to solidify intelligence and law enforcement powers for at least the next ten years.

Currently, the draft Bill is not up to scratch and that is not only a disappointment but a shocking missed opportunity. Civil society, international human rights institutions, and three ground breaking reports from independent bodies published last year called for reform of the current UK legislative framework.

This assignment is too big to not take another look at the working and see where the Bill can be improved. Education used to be characterised by the “Three Rs”, the Investigatory Powers Bill and the Home Office should embrace a new set of “Three Rs”: Review, Revise, and Return with a Bill that is up to the task of balancing the power of intelligence agencies in the UK with the right to privacy.

The British public will not accept a law that treats the Internet, the greatest modern innovation for cultural, economic and social development, as something that must be hacked, tracked, and mined. The Home Office now need to do their homework and take on board all the advice they have been given if they want to improve their grades.

Fundamental redrafting is needed for the Bill before it can be considered “world-leading” as Theresa May called it when she introduced the draft Bill in November. The Home Office must return to the drawing board with these reports in hand if the Bill is going to stand a chance of getting a pass mark.

We're currently living with spying laws that are eroding our democracy. The Snowden revelations were an earthquake. We needed change, we needed the intelligence agencies to come out of the shadows. What we got instead was the Investigatory Powers Bill.

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