The inside scoop on the real story behind Britain’s new surveillance law


By Simon Davies

Amidst thunderous applause, UK Home Secretary Theresa May today launched the government’s long-awaited draft mass surveillance law.

The “Protect Britain from Nasty People” bill (PBNP) has been heralded as a triumph of spin management. Its publication was preceded by a series of publicly funded games and sporting spectacles, all aimed at convincing a sceptical population that the state desperately needs sweeping new surveillance powers over electronic communications.

UK authorities are currently only able to make a miniscule half million request a year for communications data – a level which falls way behind other liberty-loving countries like Australia and Russia

In a powerful and deeply intelligent speech, May argued that the government must not lose this opportunity to reach into the private lives of citizens. “A century ago we could never have imagined how criminals would use private transport such as cars and small vans”, she pleaded. “Then twenty years later organised crime was using those vehicles to transport bootleg liquor during the Prohibition. We will not stand by and watch a repeat of this lesson from history;”

Opposition Labour home affairs spokesman Andy Burnham lavished praise on the proposed law, arguing that the measures strike the right balance between snooping and public safety. In passing this judgment, young Andy drew on his experience a decade earlier as Tony Blair’s henchman for the failed national ID card, which at the time he concluded had struck the right balance between snooping and public safety.

The government’s reasoning for the new powers appears unassailable. UK authorities are currently only able to make a miniscule half million request a year for communications data – a level which falls way behind other liberty-loving countries like Australia and Russia.

“This country will never be safe from bad people until the police are able to reach the numerical extent of surveillance achieved by the former East Germany”, argued Mr Burnham. “Even Malta enjoys twice our level of surveillance per head of population.”

“Britain is numerically falling behind in the surveillance league tables. We need to show Europe that we can be safe and great”.

To everyone’s relief, Theresa May argued that the government recognised the need for additional protections, and outlined a new “double lock” authorisation procedure in which politicians who know nothing about the Internet must have their approvals confirmed by judges who know nothing about the Internet.

In a hilarious irony, this sort of double lock would be banned by the new law if it related to encryption. The bill’s measures will outlaw user-controlled encryption because that type of end-to-end security would mean “bad people can continue their campaign of hatred against Britain”. East German supremo Erich Honecker had famously used the same justification, so it’s good to see that Britain’s leaders have such deep historical roots.

One of the bill’s world beating innovations in a provision that will allow the security services to force companies to help them hack into computers. Hailed as a breakthrough in accountability, this measure means for the first time that the services can do what they have always done, but now with total legal immunity.

Theresa May lamented the weakening of her previous proposals at the hands of “privacy loons”. Her original plan would have seen ‘black boxes’ placed in every home so that authorities could gain instant access to communications data, rather than the 2.65 seconds that it currently takes.

Many of Britain’s Internet Service Providers (ISP’s) had put up a valiant struggle against the new provisions, arguing that surveillance comes at a cost, and that cost should be around £800 million ($1,100 million).  The government sighed and then said yes to this demand, and all parties to the deal were then free to pretend that this sort of subsidy was completely unprecedented.

Theresa May observed that the cross-party support for her plan was a “tribute” to modern democracy. “Rest assured that all of us will continue to protect decent, hard working, ordinary, law abiding, tax-paying, respectful and compliant citizens”.