UK Open Rights Group Crowdfunds Mass Surveillance Explainer

Proof, if proof were needed, that democracy is a cat and mouse game of PR these days… Civil rights campaign organisation, the Open Rights Group, is running a crowdfunding campaign to try to raise £20,000 to fund a challenge to the U.K. government’s own massive PR machine which is in the midst of driving the draft Investigatory Powers bill through Parliament and onto the statute books this year.

The draft IP bill, presented to parliamentary in November — and now being interrogated by a joint select committee of MPs and Peers, due to report next month — is the U.K. government’s attempt to update and crystalize the law on surveillance powers in the post-Snowden era.

The bill not only seeks to legitimize mass surveillance activity that has been ongoing in the U.K. for decades, with little or no public acknowledgement of this fact until after the Snowden disclosures — and with activity authorized via obscure legal loopholes such as section 94 of the 1984 Telecommunications Act — it also expands the surveillance capabilities available to the intelligence and security agencies. For example by requiring ISPs to store a list of all the websites U.K. Internet users have visited for the past 12 months. So called ‘Internet connection records’.

This despite European judges overturning blanket data retention powers, back in 2014, on the grounds that such capabilities are disproportionate. While, last summer the U.K. High Court also ruled that the current emergency U.K. surveillance law, DRIPA — pushed through parliament without proper scrutiny, also in 2014 — is illegal under European Human Rights Law.

The Open Rights Group is hoping to be able to run its own, inevitably more modest, public information campaign about the IP Bill, by turning to Indiegogo to raise £20,000 to make a short film to explain mass surveillance to the masses and illuminate the implications for Internet users if the bill passes into law. Its flexible funding campaign is nearing the end, with five days left to run and more than £12,500 pledged so far.

“The public have… been repeatedly told that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. We need to challenge this sweeping statement and show people just what is at stake. We may not have things to hide but we all have things we want to keep private, safe and secure. If this Bill is passed, there can be no guarantee that we can do this,” the group writes on its campaign page.

A key criticism of the IP Bill has been the truncated timetable afforded to the joint select committee that is hearing views on the proposed legislation. A member of the committee, the Liberal Democrat Peer Lord Strasburger, characterized the two weeks afforded to hear witnesses as “ridiculous“, adding that the government is turning the process “into a rubber stamp”.

In one witness session held in December before the holiday break, the committee heard conflicting views on the costs of capturing Internet connection records, concerns over the implications for encrypted services — including criticism of the bill’s vague wording — and fears over sweeping powers to sanction mass hacking of services. So plenty to be concerned about then.

The Open Rights Group says it wants to launch its public-facing campaign next month, to coincide with the committee’s report and put pressure on the MPs and Peers who will be debating, amending and voting on the legislation in the coming months. The government’s timetable for passing the legislation is before the end of the year when DRIPA is due to expire.

“The Government is using fear of terrorism to persuade the public that they should give up their rights. We need to show more members of the public that what the Government is proposing is mass surveillance and it does have serious implications for their privacy and security. We have just a few months to persuade them, the media and our MPs that this draft law needs to be changed before it it passed by parliament,” the Open Rights Group adds.

A £1,500 pledge to be the official sponsor of the planned film has been bought by U.K. ISP Andrews and Arnold, which has submitted written evidence to the IP Bill committee — and is a long time campaigner against Internet censorship and against earlier attempts to legislate so called ‘Snoopers’ charters’ in the U.K.