The Investigatory Powers Bill, more commonly known as the Snooper’s Charter was passed into law this week giving government agencies in the UK unprecedented access to its citizens online activity.
The hysteria surrounding the government being able to spy on its citizens is somewhat unfounded as they’ve been doing it for years anyway, but what’s more troubling is the amount of government bodies that can access your personal information and why.
Included in the list of government bodies are the NHS and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). With growing concern from British taxpayers that the benefits system and NHS are being exploited, it’s not entirely far-fetched to imagine scenarios where these departments could exercise an alarming amount of control.
Say you’re claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance or another out of work benefit. With JSA you have to prove that you’re doing what the DWP has asked you to do each week, which is usually along the lines of listing what jobs you’ve applied for, interviews you’ve set up/had etc. However, they can now legally look at your online history and see what else you’ve been doing. If you went to the cinema or ordered a takeaway online, the DWP could claim that you’re spending your allowance on luxuries rather than living.
Some people will say that that’s fair enough, but what right do the DWP have to dictate your way of life? If an employer told you that they were cutting your wage because you’d demonstrated that you had more money than you needed, you would be up in arms. In other words, should it matter how you live your life, so long as you’re meeting the requirements to receive these benefits? Opinion here will be split as a lot of people will find the idea of such government control abhorrent, but a lot of people would agree as the idea that their tax money is going (albeit very indirectly) to pay for others’ luxuries.
On the other hand, could the NHS refuse treatment to people who they can prove don’t live a healthy enough lifestyle? That’s significantly less likely, as you don’t need to look at someone’s internet history to find that out, but it’s just another way to reiterate the amount of control that government bodies could have in the future and just how much it could affect people’s lives.
However, far scarier than all of this, is not with the lawmakers, but those that operate outside the law. The government has promised to use these powers, in part, to catch cyber criminals, but cyber criminals are, by definition, quite good at hacking into sites and databases that they shouldn’t be.
Companies that do most of their business online spend a lot of money on making their servers secure so that customers and/or clients won’t be put off using them, but Google recently had a lot of its gmail accounts hacked. Sony’s Playstation Network was notoriously hacked a few years ago.
The government don’t have the profit motivation to keep their databases as secure and so it’s a very real worry that internet users in the UK are at risk of having their personal information viewed by people with deliberate malicious intent. Skilled hackers could access your bank accounts, emails, shopping habits, online interests and target you, should the government store information on you.
Maybe I’m being paranoid, though. The idea of privacy has changed significantly in the last few generations, mainly due to the advent of the World Wide Web. The idea of sharing so much of your life on social media, is bizarre and uncomfortable to people who grew up pre-internet. Maybe, this is just a normal progression in human behaviour, where as we all become more connected, it becomes a lot more unusual to keep secrets, to be so private about your life. With so many people using the internet every day, giving away loads of information, posting, blogging, vlogging and so on; the amount of background noise makes it impossible to single any one person out, and the chances of being negatively affected by online surveillance are as slim as they are for being subjected to real-life surveillance. In other words, safety in numbers.