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Can this video parody get Brits to care about online privacy?

TechCrunch TechCrunch 8/04/2016 Natasha Lomas

After John Oliver used humor to tackle the U.S. surveillance reform debate last year, to try to get Americans to care about online privacy — via the mass medium of, er, dick pics — U.K. comedy duo Cassetteboy is attempting something similar, using its trademark video cut-up parody format to slice through all the government spin around UK surveillance legislation, and hopefully fire up the famously reluctant British public by making them realize what’s at stake for their online privacy.

“Every time you go online, every email you sign, I’ll be watching you,” says a parody of UK Home Secretary Theresa May in the video.

May has been spearheading a drive to expand surveillance powers in the UK since long before the current Investigatory Powers bill was drafted, with her prior bill faltering when the government’s former coalition partners refused to support it (dubbing that draft legislation a Snoopers’ Charter — the same moniker critics like rights group Privacy International apply to her new surveillance bill).

“Think of your own smartphone, it’s no longer a no-go zone. It’s under attack because we will hack all of the technology you own,” U.K. PM David Cameron appears to say in another of Cassetteboy’s cut together sequences.

The Investigatory Powers bill, which is in the process of being scrutinized in detail by UK MPs, does indeed include provisions for ‘bulk equipment interference’ — aka the power for state agencies to hack devices en masse. Not that you’ll find the real-deal David Cameron talking so plainly about the scope of the bill’s hacking powers.

The draft legislation also includes some weasel wording on encryption which throws doubt on the legality of end-to-end encryption, given the bill contains clauses requiring companies to remove ‘electronic protection’. May has also previously specified companies should be able to supply data in a legible form to authorities when served with a warrant — a position that is either fallacious or disingenuous.

Meanwhile, more tech companies are rolling out end to end encryption. Only this week, for example, messaging app WhatsApp, completed the integration of e2e encryption across its platform. Is the UK government seriously saying it would outlaw WhatsApp?

“It’s all the information you give to any corporation. Every conversation in every situation, every communication, every website you use, everything you do, every day in every way,” runs another stitched together sequence.

The video repurposes The Police’s Every Breath You Take as its musical backing to hammer home the point that the legislation aims to legalize a regime of mass surveillance that was only revealed, in 2013, by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, and has since been judged illegal by multiple courts.

“A new power that allows us to get your browsing history from the Internet,” says another edited snippet of May later in the video, for once clearly describing the bill’s provision for the creation and storage of so-called Internet Connection Records — a hugely intrusive requirement that ISPs hold details of every website accessed by users for a full 12 months.

May normally prefers to describe ISCs as ‘akin to an itemized phone bill’ — leaving critics to point out the folly of such a comparison…

Not to mention the massive data security risks when you mandate ISPs store a rolling cache of web browsing data — as flagged up by the UK’s Information Commissioner himself, earlier this year…

Of course the video can be accused of lacking as much nuance as the government’s arguments when it comes to surveillance. But then if you’re seeking to counter cynically disingenuous spin designed to deliberately skew the detail of the argument so as to avoid properly engaging with technical and moral complexity, well, you’re entitled to be a little blunt in the rebuttal.

Will the British public wake up and start caring about privacy? We can but hope so. The government is pushing hard to normalize mass surveillance this year via the passage of this bill onto the statute books. At a point when others states and regions have been forced towards surveillance policy reforms. (Even as security agencies continue their counter push for more access.)

Political opposition to the bill from the UK Labour party also does not so far extend to objecting to the principle of weblogging the entire nation’s browsing habits. Although the party has at least called for an independent review of the various ‘bulk’ powers contained in the bill, threatening to withdraw support if the government does not listen to its complaints.

But rather more drastic changes are going to be needed to see off some very clear threats to data security.

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