What the heck is…

What the heck is… the Snooper’s Charter?

By Oliver Smith 15 March 2016
Theresa May. Pic: Creative Commons/UK Home Office Flickr
Home Secretary Theresa May.

Explaining the buzzwords of the moment: What is the Snooper’s Charter and why is everyone talking about it this week?

Our weekly series What The Heck Is… exists to shed light on the strange unexplained acronyms and unfamiliar buzzwords that creep into our everyday lives.

Today members of Parliament will hear the second reading of a controversial new intelligence bill being proposed by the Government.

It’s been labelled “unfit for purpose” by lawyers, criticised for undermining “the spirit of the very right to privacy” by the UN’s privacy chief and just 12% of Brits say they even understand what it would mean for them.

Despite that the Investigatory Powers Bill (or Snooper’s Charter as it’s become known) is racing through Parliament and looks set to quickly become law. But should you be worried?

Read more: Snooper’s Charter set to arrive by the end of 2016

It’s a big debate, but don’t worry, we’re here to help.

Today MPs will debate the Investigatory Powers Bill for the second time, but Labour will abstain from voting against it.

So what the heck is this bill?

It’s an update to the UK’s current surveillance powers, agreed by everyone to be woefully out of date.

In the age of smartphones, cloud services to store our data and the popularity of encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp and Apple’s iMessage, existing laws helping the police to catch criminals have been described as “fragmented, obscure [and] under constant challenge“.

So last year, just a week into David Cameron’s new Government, the Conservative Home Secretary Theresa May revealed that she was looking to create a new bill to update the current outdated laws.

Read more: The history of the Snooper’s Charter

Today the bill includes wide-ranging provisions to let security services hack into your smartphone or laptop – they call this “equipment interference” to obtain “communications” or “any other information” from your devices.

It also lets agencies call on “telecommunications providers” (a definition which includes the likes of BT and Sky, but could also include smartphone makers like Apple) to help them, including by monitoring or hacking.

Apple has already spoken out against the proposals, warning that the change would have the same impact that the current debate between the FBI and Apple is having in the US, namely that it could weaken the security and encryption of everyone’s smartphones.

“The fact is to comply with the Government’s proposal, the personal data of millions of law-abiding citizens would be less secure,” said Apple.

Apple, Google (led by Alphabet CEO Larry Page) and BT have all come out against the bill.

Who is against the Snooper’s Charter?

It’s not just Apple.

The Internet Services Providers’ Association, representing Google, BT, Microsoft, Sky, EE, Virgin Media, TalkTalk and others yesterday wrote:

“In its attempt to future-proof the Bill, the Home Office has opted to define many of the key areas in such a way that our members still find it difficult to understand what the implications would be for them.”

Basically no one understands exactly what powers the Investigatory Powers Bill would give the police, security services and the Government.

What next?

The Government is planning to bring the Investigatory Powers Bill into law before the end of 2016 and today it will pass a key milestone.

Shadow Home Secretary Andy Burnham yesterday revealing that the Labour Party will abstain from voting on the bill, only looking to delay parts of it if ministers failed to address certain concerns over privacy.

And without strong political opposition, today it looks like the Snooper’s Charter is one step closer to sneaking into law.

Watch MPs debate the Second Reading of the Investigatory Powers Bill live here from 11.30am.

Our weekly series What The Heck Is… exists to shed light on the strange unexplained acronyms and unfamiliar buzzwords that creep into our everyday lives.