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How to stop the government reading your texts

The Investigatory Powers Act sees in the most aggressive surveillance laws in the democratic world. Here’s what you need to know

It’s been the year of post-truth, neo-Nazis seeping their way into politics and Brexit. To sum it up even more succinctly: shit. Our civil liberties are under increased threat as we stumble into an era of Trump-fascism, our bodies are being policed, and, most recently, the right to privacy has crumbled under the newly introduced Investigatory Powers Act in the UK. This kind of mass surveillance has been championed by the likes of Theresa May – then home secretary – as a weapon to combat terrorism. Having just received royal assent, it’s said to have given the UK government “the most extreme spying powers ever seen”, and whisteblower Edward Snowden called it “the most extreme surveillance in the history of western democracy”. So what does this mean for the majority of us who aren’t terrorists or political apocalypse-bringing threats to the government? And what do these new privacy-stripping laws mean for a generation who spend a lot of time online?

WHAT DOES THS BILL MEAN?

Basically, it’s an end to privacy as we know it online. Though there are some elements of IPA that just make what the government has already been up to law, there are also important additions that affect everyone. Your internet and mobile phone providers will have to keep a record of what websites and apps you’re on for 12 months - there’s a list of 48 public bodies that will be able to access this data here when given notice, including all police authorities.

Though it’s known that security services and police have been hacking phones and computers for a long time, this is the first instance when it’s been made explicit by law. And you don’t have to be suspected of a crime. Companies will be legally obligated to assist in hacking and intercepting messages on any device.

Renate Samson, chief executive of Big Brother Watch, an organisation campaigning for people’s privacy and civil liberties, told Dazed: “Fundamentally the IP bill changes the ways that the intelligence agencies, the police and government can use data, can investigate crime, terrorism and serious sexual offences. It can also attempt to prevent terror attacks happening. Because we are now digital citizens, a lot of our engagement is conducted online, and it has changed the way we can access information about all of us. There are no dark spaces online.”

SHOULD I BE CONCERNED EVEN IF I’M NOT DOING ANYTHING WRONG?

Yes. Anything you do online, even things that aren’t particularly nefarious, is going to be added to Bulk Personal Data Sets – kind of like a telephone directory, but it’s going to include everything from your flight boarding passes, to places you visit often with devices and your porn habits. This will build up a pretty unwilling profile of you for these public bodies to see, based wholly on late-night Google searches and subtweeting.

Samson says the UK is the only democratic country to store all our internet records. “That’s hugely intrusive – it means that you now can’t look on the internet privately,” explains Samson. This can, in some way, inhibit freedom of expression, freedom to explore issues using the internet as a tool, and how you engage online. “You could type in ‘abortion clinics’, ‘drugs centres’ or ‘PornHub’ into your search bar, (and) the government will know that you’ve been looking at that. That stops you from having private engagement online.”

All the ways in which we engage online or on any kind of device aren’t private or secret, and this is something people find easy to forget. And although it’s paramount that we ‘catch the bad guys online’, we’re compromising privacy and personal safety to do so. “All of us do things that in the context of us aren’t terrible, but when witnessed by somebody else can be completely misinterpreted and create a very bad picture of us. Embarrassing, more than it is dangerous,” she observes.

HOW SECURE IS THIS SYSTEM?

Not very. As Samson details, if you create a back door for one party to get through, others will be able to make use of it. The government may have the best intentions, but there will be others who don’t. This act has actually made us even less secure than ever. The number of devices where metadata exists is increasing. Wearables like Fitbits track your location and movement, and smart TVs and central heating systems can be controlled via mobiles – this information can build up a pretty good image of our routines, something that could be used by criminals.

WHAT CAN YOU DO TO PROTECT YOURSELF?

There are more secure browsers you can download, like Tor, and Samson suggests making use of VPNs, which make it more difficult to track location. There are a bunch of free applications for this, but you’re really getting what you pay for with security.

When it comes to social media, Samson suggests either making your Twitter private (though really, where’s the fun in that), or being a bit more decent with airing those who’ve wronged you online. Facebook is apparently one of the better networks for security, offering well-laid out options, but Samson warns that the ‘like’ button is pretty much a marketing tool that companies can pull information about you from to share widely.

WhatsApp is also an encrypted messaging service, but if you back up your chats, they no longer fall under that – so it might be time to say goodbye to the hundreds of memes going back months in your uni tutorial group chat. There are also apps like ChatSecure and Signal for private messaging.

Samson also warns against connecting to public wifi, where anyone could access your activity. It’s also important to switch off location services and be aware of the Cloud service you use – check into how secure that is. How? Read the terms and conditions. When it comes to apps you use on your phone, be aware of what needs access to your location, your microphone and camera, though of course this may hinder the app’s use. Nevertheless, what this all boils down to is how much convenience you want to compromise your privacy.

You can read Big Brother Watch’s important fact sheets on protecting and educating yourself further here

WHAT’S COMING NEXT

It’s pretty terrifying that, according to Big Brother Watch, countries like Russia and China are interested in extending versions of our surveillance laws in their regions. Legislating the internet seems like a mammoth, impossible task, and it is.

“The speed with which the internet moves means that legislation is often out of date very quickly. You’re creating more haystacks for needles to be found in rather than creating less. Then cyber hacking and cybercrime is thriving now at the hands of terrorists, and creating weaknesses through encryption or through hacking into systems will put us at a massive disadvantage. It could be that this bill is out of date within a few years, let alone within a decade,” says Samson.

And though speculative, it could be that harsher legislation could come in a bid to chase the gap in the future. For now, campaigns like Big Brother Watch, alongside Privacy International and others in the Don’t Spy On Us coalition, are continuing to fight against increasing surveillance. Big Brother Watch are currently campaigning against the Digital Economy Bill, which could see data shared with local councils, charities and private companies.

There’s now a bill signed by more than 150,000 people against the Investigatory Powers Act here.