All the Ways UK Residents Will Be Watched in 2017

Spies, police, and companies will all have new powers to snoop on the populace—so how bad could it get in the year ahead?

by Joseph Cox
Dec 28 2016, 6:03pm

All photos, which were taken in worrying proximity to our offices, by Marianne Eloise

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

We're living in a golden age of surveillance. Even as the debate around populations "going dark" rages on in both the UK and US (i.e. citizens using encrypted messaging and the difficulty law enforcement can have when trying to obtain personal data), pretty much everyone carries a tracking device in their pocket—one they'll go to great lengths to keep fully charged at all times—and many seem eager to hand over more and more data about themselves.

Next year isn't looking great for the privacy-conscious. Here are just a few of the ways spies, cops, and companies may snoop on you in 2017, as well as a few examples of the stuff UK censors may block, too, just for an extra bit of fun.

Your Browsing History

In November, the UK passed a highly controversial surveillance law called the Investigatory Powers Act. As part of that, certain internet service providers (ISPs)—companies like Vodafone or BT, for example—will be forced to store a year's worth of all customers' browsing data, in what the government has dubbed Internet Connection Records (ICRs). In other words, your ISP is going to know every site you visit and every web service you use. Your email checking habits, a scroll through a drug support forum, and those frequent visits to your porn site of choice will all be collated.

This vast swath of data will then be available to a slew of government agencies. This includes the usual roster of security and law enforcement agencies, but also some pretty obscure ones, such as the Foods Standards Agency.

Automatic Numberplate Recognition used by the Met Police

The Porn Sites You Visit

Not only will the government and ISPs know which porn sites you're into, they may also block access to some of them. Under the Digital Economy Bill, which is currently going through Parliament, ISPs would be forced to restrict sites from hosting various types of content.

The power is included in the section of the bill dealing with age verification checks, which are supposed to stop children from accessing pornographic websites. In short, the bill would ban any sex act being made available online, which wouldn't ordinarily be available on a commercial DVD. (In the UK, certain sex acts, like face-sitting and fisting, are illegal to depict in porn.)

MPs recently also suggested blocking access to sites that encourage self-harm or give advice on how to commit suicide, but it's not clear yet if that plan will have any movement.

Your Phone, Computer, and Social Media Accounts

Also included in the Investigatory Powers Act was explicit authorization for police to hack suspects' phones or computers. So-called equipment interference can range from a police officer using someone's Facebook email address and password to log into an account, right up to offensive software that takes control of a device.

Of course, the country's spies also hack, too, and in the act, they were given the ability to apply for "bulk" equipment interference warrants. These don't concern any one particular person, or even a group of people, but can be used to indiscriminately hack devices in, say, a given area, potentially also hitting innocent users' devices.

All That Mass Surveillance They Were Doing Before, Though Now It's Legal

The last main bit of the Investigatory Powers Act was that it gave a much stronger legal footing to the country's bulk powers, including some of those revealed by Edward Snowden back in 2013. These include hoovering up emails, Facebook posts, and more. Although courts have found that the UK was using these powers unlawfully for over a decade, the act conveniently makes all of that stuff totally legal.

The UK's powers also include "bulk personal datasets," databases of information gleaned from various sources—medical records, travel plans, passport information—which security and intelligence agencies can then exploit. According to the government's own documentation, these datasets contain information on people, "the majority of whom are unlikely to be of intelligence interest".

Your Phone Location and All of Your Texts

In the US, there is plenty of evidence of cops buying and using IMSI-catchers, briefcase-size devices that sweep up the unique identification code of a phone (the IMSI), and, in some cases, text messages and calls as well. Until recently, there were only a couple of reports about UK police forces purchasing the same sort of key.

That changed after a VICE News investigation in January 2016, and last month with an investigation published by local media outlet the Bristol Cable, which found that many more police forces had bought the gear than previously thought. According to a document published in February of this year detailing the Metropolitan Police's major contracts, the force spent more than $1.2 million on IMSI-catcher related equipment; clearly, police forces are still going to use this technology, even if they're not super keen on talking about it.

Your Emails, Probably

When IMSI-catchers aren't enough, law enforcement might start turning to "app interception systems." These are similar devices, but instead of working on the cellular network, they attack your smart phone over WiFi, hoovering up social media passwords, emails, and more.

It's not clear who has bought them yet. The FBI recently refused to say whether it had forked out the cash for one earlier this year. But according to glossy brochures published by companies pushing the hardware, police could deploy them in, say, airports or on border crossings.

And All That Stuff You're Willingly Giving to Private Companies

Surveillance is not just about the police, of course. Private companies are collecting and have access to more data on you than ever, and the idea that some employees may misuse it is not some far-fetched conspiracy theory. Indeed, Uber employees have helped men stalk their ex-girlfriends, as well as politicians and celebrities.

So what's going to happen with all that extra stuff that people will soon be sending off to companies, if they aren't already? Voice-focused devices such as Amazon Echo are likely going to proliferate—the Wynn Las Vegas just announced that an Echo will be in every hotel room to allow guests to control devices verbally. Who knows: Maybe "what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas" will soon be a cute vestige of a simpler time.

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Browsing history