‘I need to shave my head or dye it, delete my email and bank accounts. I’d have to wave goodbye to the ease of a debit card and deal in cash, change my name, destroy my computer files, move city, leave my IPhone on a train, bin my personal possessions and wear sunglasses in public.’
Quietly, and with only a murmur of resistance, a law known colloquially as the Snoopers Charter gave the British government invasive surveillance powers beyond that of any other western country.
After a year of debate over the delicate balance between privacy and national security, the Investigatory Powers Bill was given Royal Assent on the 29th of November. It gives police and intelligence agencies access to our internet history.
Under the new bill, later this year, Internet Service Providers and phone companies, like BT, could be asked by the government to store their user’s browsing data for one year. They will know what web address you visited and at what time, without the need for a warrant or any inkling that you’ve done anything wrong.
With a warrant, security services can now bug computers and phones. Authorities can listen to your phone calls, access your emails, documents, diaries, contact books, photographs, messaging chat logs, and GPS location records. They have the ability to see what is typed into a device, including login details and passwords.
It means that what you say to a journalist or a doctor may not be as private as you imagined.
Privacy lobbying had little success in blocking the bill, even in this post-Snowden era, as it is drowned out by the fear of ISIS attacks and the need to protect the country from them.
The International and European Federation of Journalists, (IFJ) and (EFJ), and the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), condemned the bill. They see it as a threat to the liberty of journalists, as their sources won’t be protected, which could be a discouragement to whistleblowing.
“The UK has just legalised the most extreme surveillance in the history of western democracy. It goes further than many autocracies.” tweeted whistle-blower Edward Snowden.
The Snoopers Charter is important because it changes what a government can legally do. This legalisation is beneficial because it means we know what’s going on. The abilities of government surveillance is explicitly exposed, yet it’s the possibility of the constant monitoring and tracking that puts some people on edge.
The record of websites we visit will also include which apps we use on our phone and the metadata of our calls. Known as internet connection records, this information doesn’t include the exact URL of the site, as individual pages are classed as ‘content’, which the bill doesn’t allow.
It may not quite be the dystopian future imagined in Orwell’s 1984 where Big Brother monitors your thoughts and defiance of the regime means imprisonment and torture, but this is increasing the reach of blanket surveillance.
If you don’t fancy this for yourself, you can use various VPN’s to avoid being tracked. This is because Virtual Private Networks, which weren’t mentioned in the Snooper’s Charter, encrypt your data and hide your IP address for all internet connections.
It’s a whimsical wish of some to quit their job, move to the woods and leave the mundane slog of the rat race behind. It’s a fleeting image of freedom from the constant information overload and our consumerist society and for some, ‘life off the grid’ it’s much needed escape from government surveillance.
But how easy would be to achieve this pipe-dream?
Ironically, the internet is filled with information on how to go incognito and protect your privacy- but you’ll need some money to do so, as good VPN’s aren’t free.
Tor, originally the Onion Router project, is a free project. It conceals your location by redirecting internet traffic through a worldwide volunteer network of relays, so you can hide your internet activity from snoopers.
This anonymity may be essential if you’re a hacker, a journalist living in an oppressive country or for life under a dictatorship, but not so much for the average university student, like me.
It’s nothing really new though, as security agencies M16, M15 and GCHQ have been illegally collecting massive volumes of confidential personal data for over a decade. Senior judges in the investigatory powers tribunal ruled that information such as web use and financial data had been monitored secretly and without proper safe-guarding for 17 years.
So, essentially, if you did want to go off the radar, you already have a history of monitoring to dispose of, and internet use is a no go. With my reliance on Google to find out everything from the definition of an unusual word to “why eggs go cold so quickly”, switching solely to old-fashioned, non-digital means would probably prove to be quite a tiresome affair.
Technology is not only useful, it’s become totally ingrained in our lives. You only have to go on holiday to a 4G dead spot to realise that we are so heavily connected. If by some long shot you did manage to sever the tie that connects us to the virtual world, you might leave quite the trail. Facebook gives you the option to deactivate or delete your account. Deactivation just hides the account, but deleting removes it permanently. Sounds ideal, but your photos, status updates and data can take up to 90 days to actually be removed.
The idea of simply disappearing is not only slightly unnerving, but also pretty difficult. Contestants on Channel 4’s programme Hunted could tell you just that. On it, ten people play adult hide-and-seek with a team of retired police, members of the intelligence services, counterterrorism officers, analysts, profilers and cyber security wizards. They try to avoid capture for 28 days, by going completely off the radar. Emily Dredge told The Guardian last year that she risked dying of pneumonia to avoid capture.
Disappearing from society would be no easy feat, then. A simple internet search for “how to go under the radar” tells me that I need to bide my time, as I’d have to plan three months in advance for my adventure. I need to shave my head or dye it, delete my email and bank accounts. I’d have to wave goodbye to the ease of a debit card and deal in cash, change my name, destroy my computer files, move city, leave my IPhone on a train, bin my personal possessions and wear sunglasses in public.Not to mention owning an (apparently legal) fake passport.Also, don’t bother finding that ideal house, because you need to accept the nomadic life if you want to stay under the radar. And that is just a snippet of the checklist.
Looking at this long checklist of how to disappear; it’s easy for me to question whether this sweeping surveillance is anything to fuss about? We feel safe when we know cameras can catch criminal activity in back alleys and what we essentially have now is CCTV on the online world. This signifies an acceptance or a normalisation of being watched and monitored by security services.
At least the bill increases transparency around how we are being monitored, because the story of how our data is stored isn’t always readily known.
Not everyone knows that location services on Apple products have a feature that logs exactly where you’ve been and for how long. Forget a diary; with this you have a detailed description of your activity over the last month or so. How long you spent at that person’s house, when you arrived at university that day. Apple say the data collection helps them to “learn places that are significant to you” and that the information is only stored on your iPhone and not shared with anyone else.
If you fancy turning that off, you might want to visit Google maps too, who store a similar timeline of the location history.
We like to think we have privacy behind closed doors, so realising that isn’t the case isn’t great. This kind of law could have massive implications; in keeping our communications to ourselves, in blackmailing, in how much power the government has- but also in sniffing out the criminals or terrorists. I’m not a massive fan of the government knowing that I did spend some time finding out that sugar daddy dating sites are actually a thing, (solely for research purposes that is), but I can deal with that if it means I don’t have to fork out for blonde hair dye and a VPN.