Return of the Snooper’s Charter

Mathew Sayer In the News

The draft Investigatory Powers Bill (DRIP) is the latest bid to legitimize surveillance in the UK post-Snowden. A previous version of the bill failed in 2013 when the Liberal Democrats, a minority coalition partner at the time, vetoed it. That act of valor could not save the Lib Dems, and they lost 93% of their MPs in the 2015 General Election. In that election, the Conservatives won a shaky majority, formed a government, harvested the organs of the Draft Communications Data Bill, stuck that in the Queen’s Speech and now like the zombie returned from the dead the Snooper’s Charter (so British) is back.

Snooper’s Charter/DRIP

They pitch DRIP as a revamped and consolidated version of their existing legal framework on the oversight of surveillance techniques and technologies.

The Legal Maze

At the moment, surveillance is legally provided for by several different acts. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA), the Police Act 1997 and the Justice and Security Act 2013 (JSA) to name a few; there are other older acts such as the Telecommunications Act 1984 and the all important UKUSA Agreement which we will return to later.

There are several committees (parliamentary and independent) tasked with providing oversight. Parliamentary oversight comes from the cross-party Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC). Independent monitoring is carried out by the Interception of Communications Commissioner (IoCC), the Chief Surveillance Commissioner (CSC) and the Intelligence Services Commissioner (ISCom).

If that all sounds a bit confusing, then you are not alone. DRIP proposes to create a single authoritative body, the Investigatory Powers Commission (IPC), to replace the independent committees. The ISC will remain. The IPC’s Commissioner will have a Twitter to ‘inform the public about the need for and use of investigatory powers’ (p7).

The concern of many civil rights groups is that the oversight and paths to redress are useless by design. If you’ve seen Citizenfour, you may be familiar with the (IPT) also known as the Investigatory Powers Tribunal. As the screenshot below demonstrates, the IPT is rigged in favour of the intelligence agencies.

"IPT investigates complaints and deals with them within the circle of secrecy."

“IPT investigates complaints and deals with them within the circle of secrecy.” Screenshot from Citizenfour

Rather than acting as a powerful democratic mechanism these committees and courts look like ritualistic legal hand washing.

"So far they have always found in our favour"

“So far they have always found in our favour” Screenshot from Citizenfour


Currently warranted interception is governed by RIPA. They issue permits for one of three reasons:

  1. In the interests of national security.
  2. For the prevention and detection of serious crime.
  3. In the interests of the economic well-being of the UK where it connects to national security.

These are not going to be changed by DRIP because they are suitably broad. There are links between Economic prosperity and national security. The economy underpins all the other well-beings; social, spiritual, psychological but not environmental. The legal process of getting a warrant is a matter of joining the dots to make a picture (the picture is you in your underwear gawping at a screen).

What will be different is the process of getting a warrant. A so-called ‘double-lock’ of authorisation from the Secretary of State and a Judicial Commissioner will be required.

End-to-end encryption, VPNs, Tor. All the ways you hide on the internet piss off intelligence agencies. As surveillance self-defense becomes more prevalent the intelligence agencies are faced with new security dilemmas. Interception has become difficult, so the answer from the intelligence community has been to step up interference- i.e. hacking.

Mutual Assistance Agreements; pass the packets

Throughout the draft, there is talk of Mutual Assistance Agreements. These are international partnerships, like Five Eyes, that require sharing of information. When the surveillance debate is held at a national level talk is always of not spying on ‘our citizens’. This is legitimised through information laundering. For example, country A. spied on country B., country B. spies on country A. and then a swap takes place. Ta da, no domestic surveillance took place, the intelligence agency just received a new dataset.

The Snooper’s Charter will keep coming back until it passes. Without wanting to sound pessimistic regarding legal recourse, we’re screwed. The only worthwhile thing to do is minimising your digital footprint, use Tor, get a good VPN and when the time comes cast a vote for someone who might be able to help.