The U.K. passed the Investigatory Powers Act (or Snooper’s Charter as it has become known) in November and most in North America seem not to have noticed. They should pay attention because they can be sure the U.K.’s intelligence partners in Canada and the U.S. would like to do similar things on this side of the Atlantic. In Canada, the government seems to be gradually trying to warm the population up to accepting more surveillance powers. What made the Snooper’s Charter so contentious? Take your pick. Service providers are required to store details about everything you do online for 12 months, websites you go to, emails you sent, things you bought, you name it. What’s more it gives the government the power to hack, intercept, and monitor everyone.
The old “if you don’t have anything to hide why do you care” argument is really running out of gas when something this intrusive becomes law. It’s akin to people having to prove they are law abiding by allowing the government access into every personal facet of their lives. If people haven’t done anything wrong, why are they being watched? We have gone from people being under surveillance because we have a reasonable belief they might do something illegal to “well everyone might do something illegal – someday.” As J. Edgar Hoover made clear all those years ago, at the dawn of the Cold War, people also don’t have to do anything illegal but embarrassing for the state to one day use it against you. Ever gone to a website you regretted? Downloaded something you shouldn’t have? Made that online purchase you wish you could take back? Should the government know about those things if there’s no threat to national security? The new law was challenged in the U.K. and the issue ended up in the EU’s highest court where the court ruled that indiscriminately retaining emails was illegal. In essence the court was sending the message that such surveillance and violation of citizens’ privacy rights shouldn’t be decided by government ministers but by courts and trained judges. Who knew?