Mass Surveillance

Continuing the campaign against the Online Safety Bill

This week the Online Safety Bill came back to Parliament. For those of us who care about Digital Rights, the tone and direction of the debate was dispiriting. 

Hardly any MPs spoke out with concerns over ‘Spy Clause’ 106. The only real opposition came from David Davis. His amendment 153 attempted to remove powers to monitor people’s private encrypted messages from the bill. Sadly, the Liberal Democrats, SNP and the Labour Party were all silent on this expansion of encryption-breaking surveillance powers. 

Spy clause 106 would empower OFCOM to demand providers of ‘user-to-user’ messaging services make ‘best endeavours’ to develop software that would scan our messages. This ‘unlocks your phone’ in so far as it destroys the private security you have on your most intimate messages. This exposes you to Government, corporate and criminal surveillance. My erudite colleague Dr Monica Horten has written an excellent briefing that details this aspect of the bill. This is a massive expansion of state surveillance. Any totalitarian regime throughout the history of mankind would be clambering to deploy this tech against their citizens. 

To those who say, ‘I have nothing to hide’. Consider this point. This spy-clause risks providers of these services pulling out of the UK. Why would a company compromise a global product for a single Government? If these companies were to comply with the UK Government, every tin-pot dictator around the world would be submitting their own surveillance request. After all, if Britain’s OFCOM can spy on people, why can’t the People’s Republic of China, Belarus or Russia’s KGB? 

During the debate, it was clear that some MPs thought rules that applied to print media could be easily applied to networks, where millions of people have the ability to publish their own content. Some MPs themselves admitted their technological challenges (with at least one confessing they relied on their office staff to operate Zoom during the pandemic). Despite some MPs apparent difficulties with using the internet, it didn’t deter them from wanting control of it. Perhaps it’s a natural human response to try and control that which we don’t understand – It is, however, a suboptimal approach to legislating. 

In a democracy, you would hope that Her Majesty’s Opposition provides a counterweight to the Government of the day. Rather than stand up for our human rights to privacy or freedom of expression, Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour Party sought to further diminish them. As reported by the Independent, this came by way of an amendment that sought a report into the role VPN’s might play circumnavigating OFCOM’s new powers of censorship.

This was a surprising move, as VPNs are a useful cybersecurity measure used by many of the vulnerable people proponents of the Online Safety Bill are seeking to help. Victims of domestic violence, cyberstalking, DDoS attacks, use VPN’s to protect their IP addresses. VPNs can stop vulnerable people’s personal information from falling into the hands of online abusers. The attack on VPNs for their potential to avoid censorship was something we could expect from Putin’s Russia, Iran, or Xi’s China, not a centre-left party in a Western Democracy. 

So where next? 

There are still huge problems with the bill, and the Open Rights Group will continue to campaign against those problems. The bill has gone back to committee, and then will return to the chamber again for another report stage. So we still need to make the case strongly. In summary, from my perspective as a campaigner, our key messages are: 

  • Age-gating the internet – This creates new privacy, cybersecurity, and fraud risks as phishers, hackers and blackmailers will exploit demands we ‘verify our ID’ before using websites. There is also a risk that biometric surveillance will be used to try and determine the age of website users.
  • Attempts to censor content and websites – The government’s focus is on the content it wants to ban, with little attention paid to the impact on freedom of expression or privacy. The lack of definition or precision in the text leaves wide open loopholes for over-removals of content and the possibility of government-imposed, privatized surveillance.
  • Spying on your DMs and private messages – The biggest threat comes from encryption breaking, mass surveillance, and spy-clause 106. This level of surveillance is unprecedented. It ought to be taken in the context of a global war on encryption and a coordinated effort by Western Security Services to expand their capabilities.

As the bill moves back into the committee stage, we will be continuing our campaign to highlight the damage the Government is about to inflict upon our digital rights, our privacy, and freedom of expression. 

We need your support as someone who cares about fighting to protect our digital rights to get involved. If you want to take action, lobby an MP, get involved with an ORG group or simply write a letter to your local paper then please contact me, and I’ll be happy to support and empower you to do so.