March 15, 2016 | Jim Killock

Phone your MP and ask them to go to the IP Bill debate

Later today, MPs are debating the Investigatory Powers Bill in the House of Commons for the first time. The debate is expected at 12.45.

Can you call your MP's office now to ask them to go to the debate?

Call Parliament on +442072193000 and ask to be put through to their office giving your MP’s name.

Call your MP!

If you don't know who your MP is, type your postcode in on TheyWorkForYou to find out:

What to say
Remember you're far more likely to get to speak to a member of your MP's staff than your MP. Ask to speak to your MP and if they're unavailable, ask their staff member to pass on the message.

  1. Ask them to attend the debate
  2. Ask them to ask whether Internet Connection Records - the Home Office's proposal for getting Internet Service Providers to make a database of everyone's web browsing history - is really a secure, democratic and efficient way of detecting and investigating crimes
  3. Ask them to ask the Home Office minister to provide more than just an anecdotal case for bulk collection powers and Internet Connection records. We want to see costs and evidence.

Call your MP's office now

Call Parliament on +442072193000 and ask to be put through to their office giving your MP’s name.

Call your MP!

This is a big moment for surveillance in the UK. Let's make sure our MPs are asking the right questions. 

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March 02, 2016 | Jim Killock, Pam Cowburn and Javier Ruiz

The revised Investigatory Powers Bill: what has changed

A revised version of the Investigatory Powers Bill was published today, less than three weeks after critical reports by the Intelligence and Security Committee and the Joint Committee, which had scrutinised the Bill. Together with the Science & Technology Committee, they made 123 recommendations. On first reading, it appears that the revised Bill has made minor revisions not the full redraft that many, including ORG, have called for.

There are two broad questions for Parliament. Firstly, do they agree that collecting records of everyone’s communications does not constitute a serious infringement of people’s privacy, and therefore cannot be regarded as mass surveillance. This is question of principle, which will inevitably be tested in court.

Crucially, the Home Office has presented an “Operational Case” for each power. This was a key demand from the Joint Committee - which they made because they felt Parliament needed to understand whether bulk data acquisition is necessary and proportionate. Without understanding what these programmes are used for, and what results they achieve, it is impossible to justify them.

However, while these present helpful information to Parliament, they lack the key requirements of an Operational Case: information that can help people work out if the programmes are worth the money, and how they compare with the alternatives such as targeted programmes of data acquisition. In any case, a process is needed to go through these and examine them, which should take place at the start of a legislative process, rather than near the end.

The second question is whether the Bill is fit for purpose, and whether it answered the criticisms made by the three committees.

ORG and the Don’t Spy on Us coalition published a summary of the Committees’ findings, which was emailed to MPs and peers to help them judge whether the amended Bill has addressed the flaws that have been identified.

What has changed?

Privacy: The ISC said: “privacy protections should form the backbone of the draft legislation, around which the exceptional powers are then built” and said that “one might have expected an overarching statement at the forefront of the legislation”. The Home Office response seems to have been to add the word “Privacy’ to a heading in Part One of the Bill.

Internet Connection Records: The revised Bill has extended police powers to monitor British citizens’ internet use. In the draft bill, the police were allowed to look at your use of internet communications services - such as messenger or chat applications - or whether you had accessed illegal materials. The new proposals give the police the powers to access any internet services, including cloud services where you don’t “communicate” with anyone else such as Dropbox, if they think it is relevant to an investigation. Access to ICRs still has internal sign off by public authorities without external authorisation.

ISPs raised concerns about lack of clarity about their obligations, but the final Bill does not help here. The Codes of Practice say: “The core information that is likely to be included are: an account reference, a source IP and port address, a destination IP and port address and a time/date. However, there is no single set of data that constitutes an internet connection record, it will depend on the service and service provider concerned.”

The filter: there has been no change to provisions for the ‘filter’ which could turn ISP data into an enormous population profiling engine. While the committees did not highlight this issue to the extent they could have, it remains a key concern.

Bulk interception and acquisition by GCHQ and MI5: The final Bill does not contain any fundamental changes and the wholesale tapping of fibre optic cables revealed by Snowden will continue as before. The agencies will also continue to obtain the phone records of everyone in the UK, plus soon our full internet histories. The final bill ensures that nothing is out of bounds by using more general words to refer to the intercepted content and data, now referring to “anything obtained under the warrant”. The agencies also gain more flexibility to modify warrants, separating the obtention of content and data, which can be changed without judicial approval during emergencies. 

Bulk personal datasets: Both the ISC and the JC called for class warrants to be removed but they have remained in the Bill. There is more detail on how Bulk Datasets warrants can be authorised and modified but no substantive restrictions. Judicial Commissioners can now order the retention or deletion of only part of a database.

The final bill makes clearer that warrants do not cover the obtention of databases - which relies on separate statutory powers - just their retention and examination. This is good for clarity, but raises more questions on how exactly the agencies obtain such databases when public bodies and private organisations are not compelled by law to collaborate.

Judicial authorisation of warrants: The system of “double-lock” remains in place with minor modifications. Ministers continue to authorise warrants with a “judicial review” by Commissioners. The period for emergency warrants to operate without approval from the Commissioners has been reduced to three days down from five.

There are some changes to the process for appointing commissioners and their operations, with more budgetary independence from the Home Office.

Privileged communications: The Bill is now peppered with references to legally protected communications, but the underlying protections remain too weak. Chairman of the bar Chantal-Aimée Doerries QC said: ‘The Bar Council is disappointed that the bill introduced to parliament today does not provide sufficient protection for legal privilege on the face of the bill. 

Encryption: Some small changes on the issuing of technical capability notices, which now cover removal of encryption applied “on behalf” of the operator. The obligations to support state hacking operations now applies to “telecommunications operators”, which can be both public or private.

Bulk hacking: Once more no changes other than closing potential loopholes to ensure that the agencies cannot miss anything, a recurrent theme throughout the new bill. Here the bill now refers to obtaining “any other information”, instead of “private information”. In case of doubt, the bill now clarifies that “any conduct which is carried out in accordance with a bulk equipment interference warrant is lawful for all purposes”.

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February 22, 2016 | Ruth Coustick-Deal

Next moves for the IPB: Split, Delay or Publish?

Last week we heard three parliamentary committees' criticisms of the Investigatory Powers Bill (IPB). All in all they had 123 recommendations about changes that need to be made to the Bill. So what's next for this huge surveillance Bill?

 With criticism like that and their credibility undermined, we're expecting Theresa May and the Home Office to do one of three things with the Bill: Split it, Delay it or Publish it.

1. Split
They divide the Bill up into two or more different laws.

Theresa May is rushing to get the IPB on the statute book by December. The Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (DRIPA) - the law compelling ISPs to store our communications data for a year - expires at the end of 2016.

As DRIPA reaches its sunset, the Home Office wants to have another new law in place that keeps that arrangement going. They may take the data retention parts of the IPB and try to pass that separately from the rest of the Bill in the next few months. 

This would give them more time to make changes to the rest of the Bill. If they do this, they will have failed to pass a single comprehensive surveillance law - one of the Home Office's stated intentions when they first published the draft Bill. More importantly though, it's likely that they'd try to pass the new 'Snooper's Charter' parts of the draft IPB along with the data retention parts.

This would mean that we'd have a big fight on our hands in the next few months to stop the Government compelling the collection of the nation's web use.

2. Delay
They take into account the recommendations of the committees and delay the Bill so that they can re-draft properly.

Re-writing a better version of this Bill should take them some time. They will have to go back to the drawing board and make real changes that deal with the criticisms received from Parliament. They would also have to extend the sunset clause in DRIPA. This would likely be the best outcome for us, as it would give the civil servants more time to deal with the serious criticisms of the entire Bill such as the Intelligence and Security Committee's complaint that it was treating privacy as an add-on rather than the backbone of the Bill. 

3. Publish
They decide to press ahead, quickly make a few small changes to the draft Bill and present it to Parliament in the next few weeks.

If this happens we will wait for the new Bill to see what they come up with. But it's unlikely that they'll address all 123 recommendations - showing that they are rushing ahead without fully listening to concerns. This would be the worst possible outcome. The Home Office would be rushing through legislation that has been criticised from all quarters without consideration for the very reasonable complaints made by Parliament.

ORG and other civil society groups have been invited to meet with the Home Office later this week where we expect to get a better idea of what's going to happen. It will be a critical point where we'll learn what the future of this Bill will be and whether the Home Office has listened to the well-deserved criticism of the Bill. We'll write to update you about what's happening next.

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February 11, 2016 | Pam Cowburn

Investigatory Powers Bill: Home Office needs to start again

The Joint Committee into the Investigatory Powers Bill was published today. It’s the third report in less than two weeks that calls for significant changes to be made to the draft Bill.

The Joint Committee report's is far from perfect - for example it accepts the Bill's weak proposals for judicial authorisation – but its 86 recommendations cannot be addressed with anything less than a full rewrite.

As Committee member Lord Strasburger puts it:  “It needs more than mere tweaking, it needs to be fundamentally rethought and rebuilt.”

Here are some of the key points:

Bulk surveillance powers

The report asks the Home Office to make the case for bulk surveillance powers and to show that their use could be compliant with privacy rights as these powers have the potential to be, “exercised in a way that does not comply with the requirements of Article 8 as defined by the Strasbourg court.”

It also points out that limiting these powers to overseas communications only could be pointless, given the global nature of the Internet.

Internet Connection Records

All three reports expressed concerns about how ICRs (Internet Connection Records) are defined and budgeted for. In addition, the Joint Committee stated it has “concerns about the definitions and feasibility of the existing proposal”.

The Committee's report calls for clarity about the definitions of ICRs, and admits it was not able to accurately assess the costs provided by the Home Office, which have been criticised as too low by several ISPs.

The Committee also rejected one of the key pieces of Government spin around for ICRs: “We do not believe that ICRs are the equivalent of an itemised telephone bill. However well-intentioned, this comparison is not a helpful one.” There is far more personal data available on our phones and computers than a telephone is ever able to gather.


The Committee says the Bill needs to be amended to make it clear that companies won’t be required to compromise encryption keys or install backdoors. It also says that the Government should, “make explicit on the face of the Bill that CSPs offering end-to-end encrypted communication or other un-decryptable communication services will not be expected to provide decrypted copies of those communications if it is not practicable for them to do so.”

Bulk personal datasets 

Bulk personal datasets (BPDs) are databases held by public and private organisations - for example, the electoral roll. The Committee found that the Government had not made the case for acquiring BPDs and said that the safeguards around them had not been explained properly. Like the Intelligence and Security Committee, they said that class warrants, which would allow the agencies to use one warrant to acquire multiple BPDs, should be removed from the Bill.

What's next for the Bill?

When Theresa May presented the draft Bill to Parliament, she said it was: “a modern legal framework which brings together current powers in a clear and comprehensible way”.

Three months later even she must recognise that claim no longer stands. The draft Bill needs to be completely rewritten and as the ISC suggested, the starting point should be privacy, which should be "the backbone" of this law.   We urge the Home Office to go back to the drawing board. 


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February 09, 2016 | Ed Johnson-Williams

ISC comes down hard on Investigatory Powers Bill

The Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) has released a damning report on the Home Office's draft Investigatory Powers Bill (IPB).

The ISC is a committee of MPs and Peers who scrutinise the intelligence and security agencies. It's traditionally avoided rocking the boat and ORG has often called for them to more vigorous in their oversight. This time, though, under the leadership of Dominic Grieve MP, the Government's former main legal advisor, they've picked apart large parts of this Bill.


The Committee calls for privacy protections to be strengthened in the Bill:

"Privacy protections should form the backbone of the draft legislation, around which the exceptional powers are then built. Whilst recent terrorist attacks have shown the importance of the work the Agencies do in protecting us, this cannot be used as an excuse to ignore such important underlying principles or unnecessarily override them. Privacy considerations must form an integral part of the legislation, not merely an add-on."

It is good to see privacy be such a strong focus of their report. The report calls for privacy to be an "integral part of the legislation" and calls for the inclusion of a new section "dedicated to overarching privacy protections".

They have nevertheless agreed with previous committees that bulk powers may be “necessary and proportionate”. Here, they could have called for more public evidence to show their impact. Even if you agree that bulk data is useful or even necessary, the absence of public information, excepting a few details of some possible Home Office case studies, is not enough to justify the powers or to allow a full Parliamentary discussion of these capabilities. It will certainly be interesting to see the extent to which the Home Office builds a response to this criticism into the re-drafted Bill.

Rush job

The Committee criticises the Home Office for being overly hasty in their preparation of the Bill: 

"It appears that the draft Bill has perhaps suffered from a lack of sufficient time and preparation and it is important that this lesson is learned prior to introduction of the new legislation."

We agree with the ISC. This Bill cannot be rushed through Parliament. It is a huge piece of legislation that needs to be drafted carefully and thoroughly scrutinised.


On the subject of Bulk Equipment Interference (read: bulk hacking), the ISC complained that they haven't seen convincing evidence for the need for Bulk Equipment Interference (EI) warrants:

"The Committee has not been provided with sufficiently compelling evidence as to why the Agencies require Bulk Equipment Interference warrants, given how broadly Targeted Equipment Interference warrants can be drawn. The Committee therefore recommends that Bulk Equipment Interference warrants are removed from the new legislation."

At first reading this is positive but the reason the report gives is that Targeted Equipment Interference warrants can be broad enough to cover anything the Agencies might have wanted to use a Bulk EI warrant for. A better recommendation might have been to restrict Targeted Equipment Interference warrants to more limited targets.

Bulk personal datasets

The ISC is particularly critical of the draft IPB's provision for agencies to acquire large numbers of Bulk Personal Datasets (BPDs) - large datasets containing personal information about a wide range of people. They said:

"BPDs contain personal information about a large number of individuals, the majority of whom will not be of any interest to the Agencies. Given the volume of the material concerned, and the number of individuals covered, the Committee does not feel that such practical considerations are sufficient to override privacy concerns.

The Committee considers that the acquisition, retention and examination of any Bulk Personal Dataset is sufficiently intrusive that it should require a specific warrant. We therefore recommend that Class Bulk Personal Dataset warrants are removed from the new legislation."

The use of BPDs was exposed by the ISC's previous report into surveillance powers. It is just one of the areas of the Bill where the law is being drafted to allow practices that are already taking place. We agree with the ISC's calls to remove class warrants that would allow the agencies to acquire multiple BPDs.

What happens now?

When you've got a committee of MPs and Peers that's traditionally supportive of surveillance and headed up by the Government's former legal advisor telling you that your Bill doesn't provide enough privacy protections, you know you've got work to do. 

Parliament's Science and Technology Committee has already said the Bill could put the UK tech sector at risk. The Joint Committee of MPs and Peers tasked with scrutinising the whole Bill will publish its report on Thursday. Their report is rumoured to be 400 pages long.

While we'll wait to see what the Joint Committee has to say, it's already clear that the Home Office will have to properly re-draft this Bill to include privacy protections. There have been suggestions that the Home Office is planning to publish a new version of the Bill by the end of February. They should take a lot longer than two weeks. Theresa May must ensure that the ISC’s very serious and well thought-out demands are dealt with in full.

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February 01, 2016 | Javier Ruiz

Science and Technology Committee of Parliament slams Snoopers' Charter

The Science and Technology Committee of Parliament publishes scathing report claiming that uncertainty over the Snooper's Charter will harm the UK tech industry.

The Science and Technology Committee of Parliament has delivered a major blow to the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill (IPB) in its scrutiny report. The IPB will put into law the powers and capabilities revealed by Edward Snowden, and includes the latest incarnation of the Snoopers' Charter. The Committee's overall message to the Home Office is that uncertainty over costs and obligations in the Bill will harm UK companies and make Britain a less attractive place for foreign technology businesses.

The report says: 

“The evidence we have received suggests there are still many unanswered questions about how this legislation will work in the fast moving world of technological innovation. There are good grounds to believe that without further refinement, there could be many unintended consequences for commerce arising from the current lack of clarity of the terms and scope of the legislation. It is essential that the integrity and security of legitimate online transactions is maintained if we are to trust in, and benefit from, the opportunities of an increasingly digital economy.”

The Committee only looked at the technical aspects, not considering whether measures are justified by threats or what the privacy implications may be. After taking evidence from dozens of expert witnesses – including ORG – they found the Bill lacking on several aspects.

Parliamentarians found that Internet Connection Records are not properly defined, and neither are other central concepts in the legislation such as: “relevant communications data”, “communications content”, “equipment interference”, “technical feasibility” and “reasonably practicable”.

The Committee recommends that Government should be more explicit on the exact obligations the Bill will place on technology companies in order to to allay concerns about impact on businesses and competitiveness. Codes of practice need to be published with the Bill and be clear on compliance burdens, proportionality and cost recovery. These should be regularly updated.

The reports says that Government must urgently work with industry to improve estimates of all associated costs, which will likely include security and other areas besides simple storage, and assure companies that they will be fully reimbursed:

“The Government should reconsider its reluctance for including in the Bill an explicit commitment that Government will pay the full costs incurred by compliance.”


Encryption is another area singled out for criticism. The Committee asks Government to clarify the obligations to provide clear unencrypted data, when encryption would have to be removed and what happens with end to end encryption.

MPs and peers have picked up on a seemly narrow but important point. The Bill says that such technical measures must be put in place if it is “technically feasible”, but other measures in the Bill are only compulsory when it is “reasonably practicable” to do so. The Committee asks for this higher bar to be applied to the other cases as well. This example shows the importance of such small print, which is peppered throughout the Bill.

Unfortunately the Committee missed a beat on encryption. Reasonably, the report queries whether companies should be forced to remove protections applied by third parties, such as other companies or end users themselves. The main battleground though, is whether companies should be able to apply encryption that they themselves are not able to break if done properly.


Equipment interference – hacking in common parlance – is also deemed problematic. The report relays widespread concerns from businesses about the obligations to assist authorities in their hacking activities, particularly from open source companies.

The report believes that there is a well-founded concern that that the perception that UK businesses are in cahoots with the spies will put British companies at a disadvantage. This means that more transparency over the extent of powers may be required.

The Committee pleads with the Home Office to continue to engage with “communications businesses and the wider internet community” to allay concerns and confusions. They also make an important point. It is not only internet businesses, but also their users who “require assurances that investigatory powers will be imposed proportionately, and that the judgement as to what is proportionate should at all times be open to reasonable challenge.“

Despite its narrow focus, the report shows the huge amount of work that needs to be carried out by the Home Office before the Bill is fit to be presented to Parliament.

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January 28, 2016 | Javier Ruiz

Data Privacy Day: the new EU Data Protection Regulation explained

The European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is due to come into force in April 2016, in the biggest reform of privacy laws in Europe for two decades. This is the first blog in a series where we will look at how the new law will affect us.

The new Data Protection Regulation has taken four years to go through Brussels, in a convoluted process that has seen the original proposal from the European Commission utterly transformed through unprecedented levels of lobbying by companies and governments. The US was particularly aggressive, but in the end EU member states such as Germany managed to do a lot of damage with their demands for carve outs and exceptions.

EU flags

Photo credit: Thijs ter Haar - CC-BY2.0

The final version of the regulation is a mixed bag of results from a civil society perspective. The reform of data protection aimed to both modernise and harmonise the legal framework across the EU, while maintaining existing levels of protection. The original proposals aimed to put citizens at the centre, giving people control over their information and improving enforcement against abuses, but these ideas have been watered down substantially. Yet we must celebrate the fact that the regulation was passed at all, given how close the process came to collapsing on various occasions.

The regulation has not managed to completely please businesses either. At a recent stakeholder roundtable organised by the Information Commissioner Office (ICO), we heard repeated concerns about the new requirements and the need for guidance. The message from the Commissioner was “don’t panic but expect fundamental changes to how data protection works”.

In the coming months ORG and other civil society groups will work to ensure that those changes take place and the new regulation takes basic data protections into this century. In this first blog, published on Data Privacy Day, we outline some of the main changes in the regulation, as well as some of the missed opportunities. The GDPR is huge and we will look at other areas in a series of blogs in the coming weeks.

Consent and “legitimate interests” to process your data

The new law brings in a stronger provision for consent to the processing of data. Until now companies could rely on "implicit consent" where if you used their services it was assumed that you were happy for your data to be collected unless you ticked an “opt-out” box.

The GDPR is better as it requires you - the data subject - to positively agree by “a statement or a clear affirmative action.” Consent now must be “freely given, specific, informed, and unambiguous,” which sounds good but belies some complex nuances that armies of lobbyists and lawyers have fought over during the past few years. The original proposals included “explicit” consent, a higher bar, but this has now only been kept in relation to sensitive data such as race, biometrics, political or sexual orientation; much as it is now.

The regulation is an improvement in other areas, making it easier to withdraw consent and clarifying that freely given consent cannot be given when people are unable to refuse without suffering a “detriment”, or where there is an imbalance of power. Importantly, an organisation cannot make a service conditional upon consent to give away data, unless the data is necessary for the service. These aspects should have important implications for many online services and apps.

The new law also brings changes to consent from minors under 16, with concerns for example that teenagers may be required to obtain parental permission to access confidential information. This is a complex issue and we plan to cover it separately.

Most people believe that consent is the one and only basis for handling your data, but this not the case. Companies may need to do this in order to fulfil contractual or legal obligations, or in an emergency, and this is fine in most cases.

Unfortunately, the law also allows some fuzzy “legitimate interests” of an organisation to justify the processing of personal data overriding the privacy of individuals, appearing to contradict the very idea of data protection. This was originally designed as a narrow exceptional case but has become the main justification for the oceans of personal data kept by businesses large and small.

There are some limits to what companies can do, though. The purposes for which the information is used must be clearly defined, and there should be a balancing exercise that ensures there is not an excessive intrusion on individuals’ expectations, rights and freedoms. Unfortunately these are not enough to fully protect individuals and more restrictions are required.

One big problem is that the law sees the “legitimate interests” of third parties as a good enough reason for processing our data. As EDRI put it: “If a company you have never heard of can process your data for reasons you’ve never heard of, what is the point in having data protection legislation?”

The new regulation is a missed opportunity to fix these loopholes by severely restricting legitimate interests, although it brings some minor safeguards.

Transparency and access to your data

The GDPR also brings some improvements to the transparency requirements over what data is collected and how it is processed. Privacy notices should become “concise, transparent, intelligible and easily accessible form, using clear and plain language”. You should now be told a lot more about how your data is processed, including “meaningful information about the logic involved” in automated decision making. This information should be provided when data is obtained.

The regulation also provides for information to be given using “standardised icons” that should be machine-readable. Automated data processes based on computers reading preferences matching expressed privacy settings are possible but may be limited by requirements for explicit consent, and should not be permitted in cases involving sensitive data.

We remain concerned over clauses allowing companies not to comply with all the transparency requirements if giving detailed information would involved a “disproportionate effort” or in cases where disclosure is legally mandated, and expect that the Information Commissioner will be taking a robust approach to any such claims.

Companies are concerned instead that these requirements will mean drowning their customers in privacy notices and losing the ability to “layer” information from simple notices to full complex documents. We do not see why this should be the case, and clear guidance and enforcement lines should come out as early as possible to avoid the ridiculous situation of the ineffective cookie notices.

The regulation brings several changes to your right to request a company gives you the data they have on you. A small but critical change is that now such requests will be free in the first instance, with fees reserved for repeated cases or disproportionate requests. This will likely trigger a large amount of requests in the first months or even years, and we expect semi-automated services to flourish. We also expect that companies will making their life easier by automating such processes.

The information to be provided should not simply be a dump of your data as is often the case but an explanation of how data is used, similar to transparency requirements elsewhere. Overall, the regulation should make companies think their data processes very carefully, as they will be required to explain them at various points, including in new accountability requirements that we will discuss in a separate blog.

In addition to the right of accessing information there is a right to “data portability” designed to allow people to switch services and enhance competition and consumer rights. The right does not cover all types of information though, being restricted to data you provide through consent or in the course of a contract, and then only data processed automatically.

The data should be in machine-readable format and if possible provided directly to another organisation. This new right in combination with a new right to erasure, which we will discuss in our next blog, could mean some seismic changes to how data is treated.

What’s next

In the coming weeks we will look at other areas affecting individual rights - such as pseudonymous data, profiling, breach notifications - and also at the implications for organisations. Businesses and also NGOs will have to consider requirements for data protection officers, international data transfers and accountability measures, including data protection by design. There are also huge changes to data protection authorities, with the establishment of a EU data protection board, and a one stop shop principle for international adjudication.

Enforcement is another area with big changes and much larger fines, although not as extensive as we initially hoped. The recitals do include the possibility for public interest groups such as ORG to lodge complaints to authorities and courts on behalf of individuals, including for compensation.

The right for organisations to launch independent complaints has been left at the discretion of national governments, so we will need your help to get the UK to take a progressive stance on this matter which could transform privacy activism as we’ve known it.

From the above the picture seems pretty rosy, but unfortunately the regulation presents many holes that could mean that in practice not a lot changes. The potential is there but civil society, progressive politicians and data protection authorities must work hard in the coming years to ensure the GDPR delivers as close as possible on its original objectives for modernising the law and empowering individuals.

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January 28, 2016 | Jason Kitcat

E-voting won't solve the problem of voter apathy

As the old English proverb has it “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Such thoughts spring to mind with the launch of the report Secure Voting by campaigning group WebRoots Democracy. WebRoots are volunteers who ‘campaign for the introduction of online voting in Local and General Elections’. We know where they stand on this issue, but how informed is their argument that online voting can be secure?

Not very informed at all if we are to take their latest report  as evidence. The report is essentially an uncritical collage of marketing materials and thoughts from the world of commercial e-voting suppliers. Many of those suppliers are known to ORG as purveyors of systems which we observed going wrong during previous trials in the UK, including Scytl, Everyone Counts and Electoral Reform Services. Problems we observed in those trials included voters unable to cast their votes, Windows having to be re-installed before results could be extracted and errors messages in Spanish as votes were recorded for the wrong candidate.

I don’t disagree with WebRoots Democracy’s desire to boost participation and don’t dispute that low voter turnout challenges the legitimacy of our democratic processes. However the remedy proposed will do little, if anything, to cure the patient. Prime Minister David Cameron understands this and is quoted saying as much:

“Online voting? I mean I don’t have any objection to it, but I think in a way we’re asking the wrong question. The reason people don’t vote is not because it’s too complicated to go down to the polling station; the reason that people don’t vote is because they don’t believe it makes enough of a difference.”

Which is exactly what social scientists and experienced canvassers say too. In short, it is very rare that the logistical difficulty of casting a vote is the reason why someone doesn’t vote. More often the reasons are because a voter feels all parties are the same, their vote doesn’t make a difference, they don’t believe in politics, they live in a safe seat or they don’t feel well enough informed to participate. A technological voting solution won’t solve any of those issues, instead they require the hard work of education and engagement. Which is why, overall, global trials of e-voting have had little or no positive impact on participation rates.

Voting is a uniquely hard problem for computers. Unlike commercial transactions, votes have to be completely secret, anonymous, secure and verifiable. When you shop online it’s not anonymous, banks and shops know who you are and use that to verify your identity. If there’s a problem you can check your statement and ask for a refund. You can’t refund votes and you can’t have a clear voting ‘statement’ to check as that would enable vote-selling and coercion. Which is why a secret ballot is a fundamental right in the UK Human Rights Act, the European Convention on Human Rights and the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

It is computer scientists around the world who have been leading the campaigns against the introduction of electronic voting. These people aren’t luddites, their whole careers depend on the progress of technology. But they understand that a binding political election’s unique properties make them ill-suited to the best computing can offer us today. Thankfully many senior decision-makers are coming to the same view too, which is why after trials countries including Ireland, Italy, France, Germany, Finland and Norway have all withdrawn from the use of e-voting.

I was part of an independent team which studied Estonia’s online voting system and found serious flaws. Our findings, published in a peer-reviewed academic journal, showed that state level attackers could undetectably change the outcome of the elections using Estonia’s online system. And this was despite the Estonian system being the best online system we’d seen in live use, and despite the advantage of every Estonian citizen holding a smart ID card.

The risks of undetectable fraud or error are very significant, the costs of implementing these systems are huge and the benefits marginal at best. So why risk it? At a time when all public services are crying out for investment to go digital there is no compelling case for spending scant resources on e-voting. A report compiling pitches from e-voting suppliers is not going to change the reality that the risks of e-voting are too great for any sound democracy to consider.

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