The Investigatory Powers Bill and Privacy Protections in the UK

[published in CounterPunch, 11 March, 2016]

Since writing about the threat of iPhone privacy in the US and the UK in January, political lines have been drawn with Mark Zuckerberg siding with Apple and Bill Gates standing with the FBI in this ongoing debate. But how private is the information on our iPhones in the UK specifically?

Apple has been buttressing its claim in recent years that it sells products, not personal data like two of its competitors, Facebook and Google. A recent article in Macworld.co.uk, analyses privacy with Apple and Google and concludes that data is safer with Apple for the following reasons: the passcode on the iPhone locks out the user for one minute if the passcode is wrong for six tries and can be set to erase data if the passcode is wrong 10 times; the Touch ID fingerprint scanner; the Secure Enclave which “uses a secure boot system to ensure that it the code it runs can’t be modified”; Apple is demonstrating its commitment to user privacy by refusing to cooperate with the US government in unlocking iPhones (in large part because with the latest technology, Apple cannot break into the iPhone); and Google has demonstrated in the past that it is hostile to user privacy.

In the UK Apple has likewise let its position related to privacy be known: “Apple has never worked with any government agency from any country to create a “backdoor” in any of our products or services. We have also never allowed any government access to our servers. And we never will.” Conversely, a recent poll has shown that the majority of the general public (60%) in the UK is actually supportive of measures where the government should be able to monitor communications in questions of national security in a poll conducted by Comparitech.com: “[T]he study found that 49 percent of the 1000 people questioned from the UK (nationally representative) cite national security as having more importance than an individual’s right to privacy.”

Of all the actors in media and communications, Amar Singh, chair of ISACA, a UK security advisory group, finds these results troubling, especially when “so many are willing to sacrifice their civil liberties and privacy for claims of protection. Let’s not forget that no government has a stellar record in protecting their own information and if technologies are updated to allow ‘free access’ for the government, then criminals will no doubt be able to obtain the same.” And the Information Commissioner’s Office, the government watchdog criticised the internet connection records that would be revealed, “Although these are portrayed as conveying limited information about an individual they can, in reality, go much further and can reveal a great deal about the behaviours and activities of an individual.”

On the other side of this argument, the UK government has expressed that it does not want backdoors to encrypted messages but instead is asking that companies decrypt messages on demand. This is a contradictory policy as the government is expressing two antithetical ideas about privacy: we respect privacy, except when we do not. The Investigatory Powers Bill, also called the “Snoopers’ Charter,” will be introduced into the House of Commons this week. Home Secretary Theresa May has recently been accused of trying to rush through this problematic surveillance law before the EU referendum later this year. May, who is overseeing the creation of the IP Bill, witnessed similar changes blunted in 2012; nevertheless she now proposes 86 changes to the current spying laws. Recently May told a group of MPs and Lords that companies would be obliged to remove electronic protection on information when a warrant is issued.

Lord Strasburger, a Liberal Democrat peer who sat on the joint committee, criticised the bill stating: “The real reason is that although the Home Office pretends it wants a mature public debate, actually it does not like having to justify what would be the most intrusive snooping powers any Western government has into its citizens’ private lives.”

As American citizens discovered after 9/11 and more recently with the NSA files, the line between personal privacy and public safety is inscrutable when the politics that determine this line are constantly shifting.