The UK Investigatory Powers Bill (), also known as the Snoopers' Charter, has been granted royal assent, officially giving police departments and intelligence agencies enhanced bulk surveillance and hacking powers.
The Investigatory Powers Act, passed on Thursday, legalises a whole range of tools for snooping and hacking by the security services unmatched by any other country in western Europe or even the US.
The security agencies and police began the year braced for at least some opposition, rehearsing arguments for the debate. In the end, faced with public apathy and an opposition in disarray, the government did not have to make a single substantial concession to the privacy lobby.
US whistleblower Edward Snowden tweeted: “The UK has just legalised the most extreme surveillance in the history of western democracy. It goes further than many autocracies.”
Snowden in 2013 revealed the scale of mass surveillance – or bulk data collection as the security agencies prefer to describe it – by the US National Security Agency and the UK’s GCHQ, which work in tandem.
But, against a backdrop of fears of Islamist attacks, the privacy lobby has failed to make much headway. Even in Germany, with East Germany’s history of mass surveillance by the Stasi and where Snowden’s revelations produced the most outcry, the Bundestag recently passed legislation giving the intelligence agencies more surveillance powers.
The US passed a modest bill last year curtailing bulk phone data collection but the victory of Donald Trump in the US presidential election is potentially a major reverse for privacy advocates. On the campaign trail, Trump made comments that implied he would like to use the powers of the surveillance agencies against political opponents.
The Liberal Democrat peer Lord Strasburger, one of the leading voices against the investigatory powers bill, said: “We do have to worry about a UK Donald Trump. If we do end up with one, and that is not impossible, we have created the tools for repression. If Labour had backed us up, we could have made the bill better. We have ended up with a bad bill because they were all over the place.
“The real Donald Trump has access to all the data that the British spooks are gathering and we should be worried about that.”
The Investigatory Powers Act legalises powers that the security agencies and police had been using for years without making this clear to either the public or parliament. In October, the investigatory powers tribunal, the only court that hears complaints against MI6, MI5 and GCHQ, ruled that they had been unlawfully collecting massive volumes of confidential personal data without proper oversight for 17 years.
One of the negative aspects of the legislation is that it fails to provide adequate protection for journalists’ sources, which could discourage whistleblowing.
One of the few positives in the legislation is that it sets out clearly for the first time the surveillance powers available to the intelligence services and the police. It legalises hacking by the security agencies into computers and mobile phones and allows them access to masses of stored personal data, even if the person under scrutiny is not suspected of any wrongdoing.
Privacy groups are challenging the surveillance powers in the European court of human rights and elsewhere.
Jim Killock, the executive director of Open Rights Group, said: “The UK now has a surveillance law that is more suited to a dictatorship than a democracy. The state has unprecedented powers to monitor and analyse UK citizens’ communications regardless of whether we are suspected of any criminal activity.”
Renate Samson, the chief executive of Big Brother Watch, said: “The passing of the investigatory powers bill has fundamentally changed the face of surveillance in this country. None of us online are now guaranteed the right to communicate privately and, most importantly, securely.”
Trump’s victory started speculation that, given his warm words for Vladimir Putin, he might do a deal with the Russian president to have Snowden sent back to the US where he faces a long jail sentence. Snowden has lived in Russia since leaking tens of thousands of documents to journalists in 2013.
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Facebook, which recently faced criticism for censoring certain content on its platform, may soon have a free reign to censor any content it deems objectionable, as per a secret trade proposal which is in its draft stage.
Under the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA), one of several internet-related proposals being pushed is to grant an online service platform like Facebook the power to censor content without needing to accept any legal liability or public accountability. The proposal will also protect companies from having to declare their source code to government regulators.
Recently, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg faced public ire after the social network removed a post containing the "Napalm Girl" photo. If these proposals go through, digital rights advocates warn "privatised censorship", will come into effect further giving companies legal immunity over content that is removed from their platforms.
"The proposals on privatised censorship are particularly worrying," said Joe McNamee, Executive Director of the European digital rights group EDRi. "Creating a power to undermine our free speech with no accountability is reckless and contrary to literally all relevant provisions of international law."
German digital rights blog Netzpolitik, that leaked some of the proposals in association with Greenpeace, says there could be significant impact on the EU's net politics as the proposed measures could have negative effects on data protection, net neutrality, freedom of speech and IT security.
It goes on to say that activists will be able to do little about the situation as the public is banned from the TiSA negotiations as any changes made are only broadcast through official statements of the negotiating parties. Even then these do not mention some of TiSA's critical aspects.
DARPA is on track to unveil a working prototype of its "Tern" drone system in 2018 that could eventually give the Navy and Marines persistent surveillance and strike targeting "virtually anywhere in the world."
If it's implemented, the Tern program would see fully-autonomous drones on small-deck ships throughout the world that can take off and land vertically. Once in flight, they transition to wing-borne flight at medium altitude and become the eyes and ears for its ship for long periods of time.
Among the things the Navy wants is a drone that can provide surveillance capability and strike targets, but with greater range than a traditional helicopter. It also would likely be used to gather signals intelligence from foreign adversaries — one of the main missions for US submarine forces.
Tern, short for Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node, is a joint program between the Office of Naval Research and DARPA, the Pentagon's research and development arm. The agency just funded a second Tern test vehicle for the next year that's being built by Northrup Grumman.
If all goes to plan, Tern will move to ground-based testing in early 2018, before being tested at sea later in the year.
"We’re making substantial progress toward our scheduled flight tests, with much of the hardware already fabricated and software development and integration in full swing,” Brad Tousley, director of DARPA's Tactical Technology Office, said in a statement.
"As we keep pressing into uncharted territory—no one has flown a large unmanned tailsitter before—we remain excited about the future capabilities a successful Tern demonstration could enable: organic, persistent, long-range reconnaissance, targeting, and strike support from most Navy ships."
Tern isn't the only drone program DARPA is working on. The agency has also been working on something called "upward falling payloads," a program that would station drones in water-tight containers around the world's oceans until they are called to the surface.
Last Monday, Trump named Jeffrey Eisenach and Mark Jamison to oversee the transition of Federal Communications Commission. Eisenach and Jamison, both are on staff at the conservative at the American Enterprise Institute, and both former lobbyists for major telecommunications companies. Both are vocal opponents of net neutrality.
Neither is a lock for the next FCC chair. But Trump, whose only public stance on net neutrality came in a confused 2014 tweet, is unlikely to champion equal internet access in his administration.
Net neutrality policies prevent internet service providers from imposing blocks on certain websites or activities. Without these protections, an internet company like Time Warner Cable could decide to charge different rates for different kinds of data access, or provide faster or slower internet connections to their preferred sites, as was the case in 2007 when Comcast was discovered to have deliberately slowed access to torrenting sites. In February 2015, the FCC ruled to reclassify internet service providers, barring them from deliberately slowing access to specific sites.
Trump’s public stance on net neutrality is vague. His only public statement is a 2014 tweet against President Obama’s push for net neutrality protections, which Trump said would “target conservative media.”
“Obama’s attack on the internet is another top down power grab,” Trump tweeted. “Net neutrality is the Fairness Doctrine. Will target conservative media.”
The tweet suggested that, as of November 2014, Trump did not know what “net neutrality” meant. The Fairness Doctrine, eliminated in 1987, was an FCC regulation that required television broadcasters to air multiple perspectives on controversial topics. The now-defunct doctrine has nothing to do with net neutrality, which requires internet service providers to treat all internet traffic equally, and does not regulate a website’s content, conservative or otherwise.
Trump may be murky on the details of net neutrality, but his new FCC transition team is not. Despite Trump’s campaign promises to “drain the swamp” of lobbyist influence in politics, both Eisenach and Jamison lobbying against net neutrality measures when they worked for Verizon and Sprint, respectively.
An August installment of the New York Times’s “Think Tank Inc.” series highlighted Eisenach’s dueling interests as a lobbyist. Under his mantle as policy director at the conservative American Enterprise Institute’s technology center, Eisenach spoke before Congress and lobbied FCC lawyers on the dangers of net neutrality. But Eisenach was also a paid consultant for Verizon, a major telecoms company opposed new net neutrality regulations. “Don’t Make the Internet a Public Utility,” he argued in a 2015 op-ed in the Times in which he argued against net neutrality, without disclosing his work as a paid Verizon consultant.
Jamison, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, has his own ties to the telecoms industry. A former manager of regulatory policy at Sprint, Jamison has been a vocal critic of net neutrality and of the FCC, itself. “It’s time to move beyond net neutrality,” he argued in a July blog post, arguing that “net neutrality in the US is backfiring.”
Jamison weighed disbanding the FCC in an October article titled “Do we need the FCC?” (Conclusion: “The answer is ‘no, but yes.’”) In the article, he condemned accused the “cottage industries formed in support of net neutrality” of benefitting from Obama-era net neutrality regulations “at the expense of customers, who ultimately bear the brunt of regulatory rent-seeking.”
“Telecommunications network providers and ISPs are rarely, if ever, monopolies,” he wrote, although the recently announced merger of Time Warner and AT&T to create the country’s largest entertainment company has already been criticized as a monopoly-in-waiting.
As members of Trump’s FCC transition team, Eisenach and Jamison will be responsible for setting the agency’s course in the coming months. That means crafting policy for the Trump administration, which currently has no public stance on net neutrality, other than a broad pledge to repeal regulations.
It’s unclear whether those doomed regulations will include the 2015 FCC rules, which require internet providers to protect equal internet access. But under the helm of two former telecommunications insiders who already oppose net neutrality, the policy’s future looks grim.
“Google on Steroids" The Hemispere Program
Government secrecy about Hemisphere has extended to refusing to disclose basic records about the program, and EFF has had to sue federal and California law enforcement to win access to this critical information. EFF filed another round of briefing in federal court in November calling on the government to provide records as soon as possible, given that we made our FOIA request almost two years ago. The delayed resolution in federal court has stalled a related lawsuit EFF brought against California law enforcement agencies for access to their records about Hemisphere.
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