Snooper’s Charter explained: Should you care?

What is the Investigatory Powers Bill and why should you care? Here’s a quick summary of the issue.


government has unveiled its controversial Investigatory Powers Bill,

dubbed in previous forms as the ‘Snooper’s Charter’. It will require

companies to store customer phone and internet records for 12 months.


by the Lib Dems in the last coalition government, the overhauling of

laws on surveillance are being touted as necessary tools in the ongoing

fight against terrorism and other national security threats.


the proposed new powers have caused a backlash from some MPs, Peers,

and the public who claim it gives too much power to the government to

snoop on private information.

The legislation will be examined

by both Houses of Parliament ahead of a vote on the final bill next

But what exactly are the arguments in favour of and against the

new legislation?

Jargon Buster

Communications Data

– Messages

sent online automatically generate extra data such as who sent it, to

whom, when, and how. This information is known as communications data

and is what the Investigatory Powers Bill aims to allow agencies to


Internet Connection Records – This largely

translates as a person’s browsing history but can also include

information on services used by individuals such as Skype and Whatsapp.

End-To-End Encryption A

method of secure communication that stops third-parties accessing data

while it is being transferred from one communicating party to another,

eg. from one Whatsapp user to another.

Related: Google and the EU’s antitrust investigations

The Legislation

The Investigatory Power

Bill essentially gives government agencies, police, and spies more

access to your private online communications.

As it stands, if

agencies have justification, they can listen to phone calls, intercept

emails and hack devices. But they can’t see what online services someone

is using, so if the police wanted to find out whether a suspect was

using Skype to communicate, currently they couldn’t do so.


bill changes that by proposing that companies hold “internet connection

records” for 12 months so they can be requested by authorities. Agencies

will be given the power to see what online services are being used by

whom as well as when, how and, where.
So if you sign in to Whatsapp at

4.00pm, the state would be able to see that information if they wanted


Agencies will, however, require a warrant from the Home

Secretary if they want to see exactly what is being said on the online


The legislation also addresses how the state will run

operations involving the collection of large amounts of data,

effectively making legal the revelations of the Edward Snowden leak

concerning GCHQ’s mass collection of data.

Powers for mass collection of communications and other personal data by

MI5, GCHQ, MI6 have been included in the bill. Agencies will be given the ability to hack

computers and phones around the world for purposes of national

security, serious crime, and economic well-being. Should the proposed bill become law, it would mark the first time powers of mass data collection appeared in statute.
Overseas companies are exempt from the measures.

Other proposals laid out in the bill include:

  • If practical, British companies now legally have to help law enforcement agencies hack devices.
  • It will now be a criminal offence to “knowingly or recklessly obtain communications data from a telecommunications operator without lawful authority”, punishable by up to two years in prison.
  • Local councils will retain some investigatory powers, including the surveillance of benefit cheats. They will not be allowed access to online data stored by companies however.

blackphoneThe Blackphone 2 smartphone runs PrivatOS, an Android-based operating system offering advanced security controls

Arguments in favour of the bill


main argument for overhauling surveillance law, aside from keeping the

public safe, is that the current rules were written before the modern

digital explosion and are in desperate need of being updated.


bosses have long been calling for the law to be updated as they claim

their current powers are not comprehensive enough to carry out important

security work in the modern world. Three major reports

in the last year have largely agreed with these sentiments, although

they have warned against forcing legislation through. Perhaps this is

why David Cameron has called the bill “one of the most important pieces

of legislation” before Parliament.

Ministers are keen to

highlight the built-in restrictions
, which they say are designed to

prevent new powers being used against the innocent. For example, the new

criminal offence of unlawfully accessing internet data will be pointed

to as an important restriction on the ability of agencies to access

information. The government must also have cause and legal justification

to investigate individuals under the new law.

As well as this, a

team of judges will make up the newly proposed Investigatory Powers

Commission, overseeing how police, MI5 and other agencies are operating

with regards to collection of online data.

One of the arguments

made in favour of the new Bill, and against the charge that it will

impact the innocent, is that the government has no reason to use it in

an invidious way. In other words, security forces are not interested in

trawling through your Facebook posts or listening in on conversations

you have with your mates about last night’s exploits.

This may

seem to be avoiding the principle of the matter, but those in favour of

the bill argue that it addresses issues with outdated legislation and

that those innocent citizens worried about being spied on underestimate

the risk to the public from criminals being able to easily hide from the


theresamayHome Secretary Theresa May announced the new legislation in Parliament on Wednesday

Arguments against the bill

The public fear mass

data collection of the type revealed by Edward Snowden concerning the

National Security Agency in the United States. It was the Snowden leaks

which also identified GCHQ as collecting far more data than realised and

it is this, rather than targeted surveillance, that most worries

opponents, with the National Council for Civil Liberties suggesting that such powers turn us into a “nation of suspects”.


opponents of the bill have a right to be worried. After the original

‘Snooper’s Charter’ was blocked in Parliament, the Data Regulation and

Investigatory Powers Act (DRIPA), was rushed through in its place. But

the High Court ruled DRIPA illegal, saying it was “inconsistent with

European law”. Whatever the new legislation contains, being wary is a

natural response considering the recent history surrounding the bill in

its various forms.

At a time when there is increasing talk of the

Conservatives doing away with the Human Rights Act and replacing it

with one of their own, those sceptical of the Investigatory Powers Bill

are keen to ensure that no human rights concerning privacy are being

breached by the legislation. It’s often noted that that laws requiring

blanket data collection are not needed in any other EU or Commonwealth

country, so why the UK?
A petition

on campaign website 38 degrees against the legislation has more than

50,000 signatures and claims the Investigatory Powers Bill is “a breach

of our privacy, and against the idea of democracy but also a waste of

tax-payers’ money in light of cuts to the public budget in health and

social care.”

End-to-end encryption, a method of ensuring that

only the sender and recipient of messages can read them, is also a

sticking point for opponents of increased surveillance. The Telegraph reported

this week that companies would be banned from using end-to-end

encryption under the laws being introduced to Parliament today but, as

Business Insider reports, the government has informally advised businesses that this is not the case.


the bill is expected to state that companies must take “reasonable”

steps to hand over data requested by agencies with a warrant, which

could theoretically include encrypted data. If so, companies may have to

build backdoors into encrypted data transferred between users so that

they can decrypt it before providing it to the state.


raises a whole host of further concerns which opponents of the bill will

be keen to highlight. If a provider can access your information, so too

can any hackers that manage to infiltrate a provider. With the shadow

of the recent cyber-attack on TalkTalk still looming, ministers are

going to have a hard time selling any attempt to undermine encryption to

opponents of the bill.