Are new powers to pry a cause for concern?

The government wants to give public bodies powers to pry into people's internet usage. But can they be trusted? Emily Hohler reports.


Theresa May claims a "significant retreat"

The Investigatory Powers Bill published this Wednesday has been accompanied by an "unprecedented campaign" by the Home Office, police and intelligence agencies to reassure us that this "extension of state intrusiveness" is necessitated by the threat to our security, says Philip Johnston in The Daily Telegraph.

Home Secretary Theresa May claims the new measure, which replaces the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act of 2000, is a "significant retreat" from the "snoopers' charter" proposed in 2013 and defeated by the Lib Dems.

Given how much of our lives is now conducted in cyberspace, perhaps it is necessary for the authorities to "keep tabs on the subversives", but whatever changes have been made "at the margins", this Bill still represents a greater incursion into our privacy than "anything we have seen before".

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

New powers to search an individual's internet and social media activity (which firms must keep for 12 months) will mainly be used by police and security services in pursuit of terrorists and suspected criminals, but 38 public bodies, including HMRC and councils, will also be able to access the records to "detect or prevent crime".

Police and security services will not, however, be allowed to view the content of searches while on websites without an interception warrant, which, says the BBC, in all but "urgent cases", must be signed off by a judge belonging to the new Investigatory Powers Commission as well as the home secretary.

The bill also contains proposals giving intelligence services the powers to hack into specific computers or devices, and strengthen powers for bulk interception of emails, phone calls and other communications, says The Times.

This is much less "prosaic" than it sounds, says The Guardian. "The bulk harvesting and routine analysis of the traces we leave online has the potential to dissolve the very idea of privacy as it used to be understood." It is information of the sort that, the novelist John Lanchester argues, may sometimes reveal that "you're gay" not only "before you tell your mum" but before you know yourself.

It is not permitted in America. And while the legislation to "regularise the ubiquitous, clandestine prying" that Edward Snowden exposed represents an advance of sorts, it is "bizarre" that the desirability of the state keeping "electronic tabs on all of its citizens" isn't even up for discussion.

It is complacently assumed at Westminster that the "only real prying will be on those that attract legitimate attention", as if the stream of leaks from allegedly secure databases never happened, and as if "none of the myriad officials with access... could ever have a corrupt motive".

Snowden's revelations engendered huge mistrust in the intelligence agencies, even though "almost no concrete instance of misuse of surveillance powers was disclosed", says The Times. In a democracy, it is "no bad thing" that these agencies should be open to scrutiny.

But the fact remains that in order to prevent terrorist attacks and monitor potential enemies, intelligence services need access to huge amounts of data. Good intelligence, we shouldn't forget, is all that stands between us and atrocities such as the London bombings of 2005.

Emily Hohler

Emily has worked as a journalist for more than thirty years and was formerly Assistant Editor of MoneyWeek, which she helped launch in 2000. Prior to this, she was Deputy Features Editor of The Times and a Commissioning Editor for The Independent on Sunday and The Daily Telegraph. She has written for most of the national newspapers including The Times, the Daily and Sunday Telegraph, The Evening Standard and The Daily Mail, She interviewed celebrities weekly for The Sunday Telegraph and wrote a regular column for The Evening Standard. As Political Editor of MoneyWeek, Emily has covered subjects from Brexit to the Gaza war.

Aside from her writing, Emily trained as Nutritional Therapist following her son's diagnosis with Type 1 diabetes in 2011 and now works as a practitioner for Nature Doc, offering one-to-one consultations and running workshops in Oxfordshire.