UK's internet surveillance law receives royal approval

The so-called Snoopers' Charter is now law

Britons hoping that a quaint historical tradition might stop a Draconian internet surveillance law in its tracks were disappointed on Tuesday morning, when the Queen gave her approval to the Investigatory Powers Act 2016.

In theory, the Queen has the power of veto over all U.K. legislation as bills do not become law until they receive royal assent.

In practice, though, it's just a formality: no reigning British monarch has rejected a piece of legislation since 1707. Besides, given the post-Brexit backlash against anyone than Parliament deciding British law, it would have been a daring move for a hereditary head of state.

With a stroke of her pen, then, the Queen has granted a whole crowd of police officers and other government officials access to records of the online activities of everyone in the U.K.

Defenders of the legislation, including Prime Minster Theresa May in her previous role as Home Secretary, say that requiring network operators to store a year's worth of communication data, and allowing government officials to sift through it, is necessary and proportionate for protecting national security and public safety.

The communication data does not include your entire browsing history, May pointed out: Only the sites visited are stored, not the exact pages. That only provides a certain degree of privacy: You might be able to pass off your visit to a Facebook group about tax evasion as chatting with friends, but a visit to will be harder to explain away.

The legislation does contain some safeguards to prevent rampant abuse of the data, limiting access to certain government departments and agencies, and imposing strict limits on the ranks of those that can authorize access to the data.

For example, only police officers of the rank of inspector or above can approve access to the data. Of Britain's 126,818 serving police officers, 8,716 held that rank or higher, according to official figures from 2015.

Other organizations allowed to access citizens' internet connection records include Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, the U.K.'s tax collection agency. There, only staff with the grade of "Higher Officer" or above can access the data -- but that's almost an entry-level post for applicants with a degree, and there are around 20,000 HMRC employees at that grade or above, according to official figures.

The list also includes senior officers at the Department of Work and Pensions, which overseas the payment of unemployment benefits and old age pensions, and a mishmash of fire services and regulatory authorities covering gambling, farm workers, food health and air safety.

Almost forgotten in that list are those that might be expected to have a real role to play in protecting national security with all that data, the country's three spy agencies: the Security Service, the Secret Intelligence Service, and Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), where officials of grades 3, 6 or 8 and above, respectively, can access the data.

Join the PC World newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Peter Sayer

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles


PCW Evaluation Team

Azadeh Williams

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

A smarter way to print for busy small business owners, combining speedy printing with scanning and copying, making it easier to produce high quality documents and images at a touch of a button.

Andrew Grant

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

I've had a multifunction printer in the office going on 10 years now. It was a neat bit of kit back in the day -- print, copy, scan, fax -- when printing over WiFi felt a bit like magic. It’s seen better days though and an upgrade’s well overdue. This HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 looks like it ticks all the same boxes: print, copy, scan, and fax. (Really? Does anyone fax anything any more? I guess it's good to know the facility’s there, just in case.) Printing over WiFi is more-or- less standard these days.

Ed Dawson

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

As a freelance writer who is always on the go, I like my technology to be both efficient and effective so I can do my job well. The HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 Inkjet Printer ticks all the boxes in terms of form factor, performance and user interface.

Michael Hargreaves

Windows 10 for Business / Dell XPS 13

I’d happily recommend this touchscreen laptop and Windows 10 as a great way to get serious work done at a desk or on the road.

Aysha Strobbe

Windows 10 / HP Spectre x360

Ultimately, I think the Windows 10 environment is excellent for me as it caters for so many different uses. The inclusion of the Xbox app is also great for when you need some downtime too!

Mark Escubio

Windows 10 / Lenovo Yoga 910

For me, the Xbox Play Anywhere is a great new feature as it allows you to play your current Xbox games with higher resolutions and better graphics without forking out extra cash for another copy. Although available titles are still scarce, but I’m sure it will grow in time.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?