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January 16, 2017

The Future of Privacy in the United Kingdom

Politicians need to better engage with the tech community to ensure that future legislation reflects and serves the needs of citizens.

By James Nunns

The Snooper’s Charter passed into law in 2016, but that doesn’t mean the UK government is taking a break from its assault on individual privacy rights this year.

The cunningly named Digital Economy Bill is finding its way through the House of Lords as we speak, having passed the second reading with amendments to be made later this month. The government is aiming for the bill’s royal assent later in 2017.

Privacy

Rafael Laguna, CEO of Open-Xchange.

The bill has been sold to the public as a set of regulations which will help improve the UK’s competitiveness in the global digital marketplace, which is naturally something most would support. The problem with the legislation is that, like many multi-part bills, there are questionable provisions mixed in with the ‘theoretically’ good bits.

I say ‘theoretically’ because the most lauded part of the bill is the proposal to implement a ‘Universal Service Obligation’ which would ensure all Britons a legal right to minimum 10Mbps broadband speeds by 2020. On the surface, this would be a positive step to securing Britain’s digital future. Providing residents and businesses in rural areas with high-speed internet will help them compete in the changing marketplace.

Unfortunately the bill proposes to force service providers to pay for the necessary infrastructure to make this a reality. There are two logical courses of action here – either the consumer would have to fork out more per bill to cover this cost, or the service provider would take a hit to its own bottom line. Neither of these results would help the UK become more competitive. It’s clear this hasn’t been thought through beyond the attention grabbing headline.

Another prominent and controversial aspect of the bill revolves around proposed controls on pornographic websites. There are two main proposals here – one focused on the nature of material to be blocked, and the other on age verification.

Any government’s plan to restrict certain types of pornographic material inevitably generates a satirical reaction on Twitter and in news coverage. However there is genuine concern that this bill proposes to outlaw footage of perfectly legal activity. Blocking such legal communication establishes a dangerous precedent which has the potential to be misused by a future government.

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The bill also proposes to enforce stricter age verification on these websites. This is certainly well-intentioned! Customers are increasingly asking their service providers for this functionality. Where it falls down is the plan to work closely with payments companies like Visa, Mastercard and PayPal on verification technology. This would guarantee a situation where customer data is saved and tracked by the government.

This becomes a real problem when we consider that parliament has just passed one of the most comprehensive pieces of surveillance legislation in history. Billed as a way for government departments to use analytics to drive public service improvements, the Digital Economy Bill will assist in the storage, analysis and sharing of all citizen data. This won’t be restricted to the upper echelons of MI5; any public official with even modest security clearance can access this data without the explicit or prior consent of the individual.

Compounding the serious issues around bulk collection, storage and circulation of identifiable citizen data, the government has failed to specifically define what it means by ‘data’. In an information sheet, separate to the bill itself, they mention public debt including student loans and overpaid benefits, as well as marriage and birth certificates. They have shared no technical detail on how this will be executed, and individuals will have no say in the matter. Nor will there be an opt-out as is often the case with private companies.

Many citizens may not have a problem with the government collecting and sharing that information across departments. But without explicitly stating what data may be collected and how it can be shared the government is, inadvertently or not, facilitating future abuses of citizen data.

If this legislation passes in 2017, the UK will be unable to adhere to the EU’s incoming GDPR, given the serious conflicts around data retention. This is increasingly important in a global political climate that is rapidly mirroring the events of the early 20th century. Given the unpredictability of 2016, it may be prudent to accept that, as we move into 2017, the UK is not so far removed from the autocratic regimes that have abused citizens’ rights in the past. Adding a comprehensive database of personally identifiable, digitally accessible information to such a regime’s arsenal could prove catastrophic.

There has been no strong public support for either the Snooper’s Charter or this Digital Economy Bill, yet one is now law and the other looks to soon be. The government may well be looking to make regulatory improvements in good faith, but both of these pieces of legislation are short-sighted at best. They contain extremely vague definitions which can easily be misinterpreted. This once again highlights the need for politicians to better engage with the tech community to ensure that future legislation reflects and serves the needs of citizens.

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