UK Government announces “Most Intrusive Surveillance Regime in the West”

internet-surveillance

The UK government have announced a new bill which expands surveillance powers, this time named the ‘Investigatory Powers Bill’ (IP Bill). The IP Bill requires internet providers to record the browsing history of every single person in the UK for up to a whole year. This information will be accessible by the police and security services, who will also have access to see the apps that people have used on their smartphones and tablet devices, and when they used them. The bill will also give police and security services new powers to hack into devices and networks.

The government claims that local authorities will not have access to the data, and only the websites visited will be recorded, not individual pages within the site. Further details about browser history can be requested by police and security services, but this requires Home Secretary’s approval.

Theresa_May_9670221_217757cIn defence of her bill, Theresa May argued that current laws on online surveillance were out-dated, and needed to be
modernised. She stated: “I am clear we need to update our legislation to ensure it is modern, fit for purpose and can respond to emerging threats as technology advances.” In addition, she argued that some websites have become “safe havens” for terrorists and serious criminals.

The Labour party pledged support for the bill, with shadow home secretary Andy Burnham claiming that the “safety of constituents” were more important than “party politics”. However, the Lib Dems, who tend to be the only party that defend civil liberties, are more sceptical. When in coalition government, they blocked a similar bill dubbed the ‘snooper’s charter’, and Nick Clegg has questioned whether there are flaws “under the bonnet” of the new legislation.

The government also plans to prohibit end-to-end encryption, which is the technology used by popular chats such as WhatsApp and Apple’s iMessage. But founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, has lambasted the plan, arguing that attempts to ban end-to-end encryption is “like trying to ban math, it’s just not going to happen.” He continued, claiming that “governments don’t understand technology very well” and encouraged Apple to stop selling iPhones in the UK if the law goes ahead.

Unsurprisingly, notorious whistleblower Edward Snowden, has come out in opposition to the bill. According to Snowden, the IP Bill legitimises mass surveillance, and is “the most intrusive and least accountable surveillance regime in the West.” He pointed out that even just the logging of an IP address can be enough to deduce private information about an individual. It is important to note that the proposed level of online monitoring in the UK is illegal in the US, Canada and many European countries.

Government Response to Cannabis Petition Debunked

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Last month, 100,000 people signed the petition to fully legalise Cannabis in the UK. Under current rules, if a petition reaches 10,000 signatures, there will be a “response” from government. If a petition reaches 100,000 signatures, the petition will be “considered for debate in Parliament”. Although we don’t yet have the debate in parliament, the government has issued a response to the petition, which can be seen in full here. The response is disappointing to say the least, yet a little too predictable. It seems that the UK government still has an outdated view on the drug, and continues to ignore the evidence.

“Substantial scientific evidence shows cannabis is a harmful drug that can damage human health. There are no plans to legalise cannabis as it would not address the harm to individuals and communities.”

Although it is true that cannabis is not harmless and does cause some damage to human health, evidence is clear that it is much less harmful than alcohol and tobacco, two drugs which are legal. If it is government policy to regulate based on harm to human health, surely substances like alcohol, tobacco and even sugar would be Class A drugs, as they cause much more harm to individuals and communities. The graph below ranks drugs based on harmfulness to individuals and others:

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Interestingly, although heroin and crack cocaine are the most harmful to individuals; alcohol is the worst as it causes by far the most harm to others.

“Legalisation of cannabis would not eliminate the crime committed by the illicit trade, nor would it address the harms associated with drug dependence and the misery that this can cause to families.”

This is just completely wrong, and ignores historical evidence of prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s. After alcohol prohibition was repealed, crime rate – including organised crime, violent crime and corruption – dramatically reduced. In addition, we can point to more recent data in Colorado state after one year of retail sales and two years of decriminalisation. Marijuana possession arrests have dropped by 84% since 2010. Violent crime in Denver went down by 2.2% in the first 11 months; burglaries decreased by 9.5% and overall property crime fell by 8.9%. The statement also ignores the significant role that the war on drugs plays in creating the harms associated with drug dependency and the misery it causes to families. With the current laws, a young person that is likely unemployed or living in poverty, that is caught buying or selling cannabis, could either face lengthy jail time or a criminal record that makes it very difficult for them to get a good job and help that they need to make their way in life. And so, many of the harms that the statement refers to are a consequence of the drug laws, not of the drug itself.

“Despite the potential opportunity offered by legalisation to raise revenue through taxation, there would be costs in relation to administrative, compliance and law enforcement activities, as well as the wider costs of drug prevention and health services.”

At least the government now admits that there is potential economic benefits to legalisation. However, it is confusing for them to point out that there are administrative, compliance and law enforcement costs. Nobody is denying that. However, those costs are much higher when cannabis is illegal than when it is legal. Much more time and money would need to be spent on enforcing the drugs laws, in an attempt to suppress the drug trade when the drugs are illegal. Furthermore, Colorado, which is the fastest growing economy in the US, has created hundreds of jobs since legalisation, and the drug dispensaries contribute 10 times the tax revenue of a typical restaurant or retail shop. This tax revenue has been used for youth prevention services, education, mental health and community based developmental programs, all of which are much more effective in dealing with the drug dependency problem.

To conclude, not only is the government statement hollow, and lacking in evidence to support its claims, it also completely ignores relevant positive data from places like Portugal and Colorado, which have seen decreases in crime rate and drug use. Cannabis is, also, not as harmful as this statement makes out, and it is much less harmful than tobacco and alcohol. The public petition was a step in the right direction, it put pressure on the government to respond. Now, after this government response, there ought to be even more public pressure on the government, and the parliament debate needs to happen.