Decrypting the Investigatory Powers Bill: What’s at stake?

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Theresa May investigatory powers bill 2015

Despite warnings from officials, the U.K. Government is intent on pushing ahead with the Investigatory Powers Bill – known informally as the Snooper’s Charter. First introduced under the previous coalition government, it died in 2013 after Nick Clegg withdrew support. However, it’s back, with David Cameron saying that the government must be able to intercept terrorist communications. With the Liberal Democrats no longer part of the government, a key obstacle to the bill is gone, and it is set to grant a wide range of powers to intercept and retain communications both inside and out of the U.K. if passed.

Which services are being targeted in the bill?

If passed, the primary purpose of the Snooper’s Charter is to ban encrypted methods of communication. This includes Whatsapp, Snapchat, and iMessage. Services like these use end-to-end encryption, where messages and images are encrypted by the sender’s device in a way that only the recipient can decrypt. This helps keep them secure, and prevents third parties from gaining access to the information being sent. It might not seem like such a problem for holiday photos or “see you later!” texts, but it’s the key reason sensitive information like online commerce or banking is able to function properly.

What powers does the Investigatory Powers Bill grant?

The Snooper’s Charter essentially bans all forms of encryption in products and services unless the government is provided access keys, also referred to as a “back door”. This would allow encrypted services to continue to operate for the general public.

How likely is the Investigatory Powers Bill to affect popular services?

If passed, it’s unlikely to affect many of the popular messaging services available at the moment as most of them are hosted in the U.S. However, Obama has made overtures that the U.S. Government would like some restrictions on encryption. It could pose a problem for companies using encrypted services in the U.K. like banks and online stores.

A bigger potential problem is that if services have back doors built in, they become inherently more unsafe. Creating a weak spot in online security means that anyone has the potential to exploit it, not just the government. Hackers could theoretically use the loopholes to harvest credit card numbers, bank passwords and sensitive information from chats and emails.

Verdict

The Investigatory Powers Bill seems like an overblown response to a small problem. In June 2015, intelligence services were able to arrest 16 in Belgium after intercepting Whatsapp messages. Arguably, some of these services aren’t as private as they claim to be. It’s already been established that the NSA and GCHQ conduct mass surveillance of information flowing around the world. More pressingly, Theresa May is looking to rush the bill through parliament and have it passed in autumn, a choice that has been criticised in the Independent Surveillance Review. The Investigatory Powers Bill hands over to the government broad and sweeping powers that shouldn’t be pushed through without proper dialogue and public participation.

[Image credit: Policy Exchange/Flickr]

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