2016 is only a few days old but already the gloves are off in the battle over encryption, bulk data collection and state surveillance. Yes, it’s the Snoopers' Charter.
More accurately the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation was unveiled last year in a bid to modernise the statute books and give the security services the data they need to tackle crime and terrorism.
Of course, the proposed measures are deeply troubling, not least requiring communications services providers, e.g. BT, Vodafone and Virgin Media, to store data on customers' browsing habits for an entire year, just in case.
It also contains wording vague enough to suggest that the government thinks tech companies should create backdoors in products so that 'the good guys' can access people’s accounts or even their machines, when a judge lets them, of course.
Lastly, and perhaps most notably, there are provisions suggesting that encryption protocols should have the ability to be broken when the government needs them to be, so that supposedly secure communications can be read.
Unsurprisingly many of these ideas have raised eyebrows, to put it lightly, not least from technology companies that face huge burdens on their time and resources, and the risk of users fleeing from their services in droves.
Indeed, in a rare show of unity Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter and Yahoo submitted a joint response to the bill warning that such measures are deeply troubling.
“We reject any proposals that would require companies to deliberately weaken the security of their products via backdoors, forced decryption or any other means,” they said.
This submission echoed much of what Apple had to say on the matter in its submission.
“By mandating weakened encryption in Apple products, this bill will put law-abiding citizens at risk, not the criminals, hackers and terrorists who will continue having access to encryption,” the firm said.
Other notable companies to raise concerns with the proposed legislation include Vodafone, EE and F-Secure.
It’s not just businesses that have pointed out major problems with the bill. Information commissioner Christopher Graham questioned why data must be held for 12 months, noting that no justification had been given thus far.
“If you’re going to say: ‘We reserve the right to invade your privacy and by the way this material has to be retained for 12 months,’ you’ve got to make the case of why 12 months,” he said. “But nowhere in the bill or supporting memoranda have I seen the argument about why 12 months.”
Graham also noted that requiring firms to retain such huge amounts of data on the public could be a recipe for disaster, given how often organisations contrive to lose or have data stolen, a point with which I wholeheartedly agree.
The big question, however, is will the government listen? Based on past performance it seems unlikely.
Just as we saw in 2010 with the Digital Economy Act, despite huge protests and concerns raised from all quarters, the government pushed ahead, whipped its MPs into shape, and got the law through in the wash-up period before the recess.
No doubt the government will 'um' and 'ah' and thank everyone for their concerns, and a few tech-savvy MPs will make impassioned speeches in Parliament patiently explaining the issues, only to watch as the majority carries it through regardless.
If this happens it will be a major blow to everyday freedoms in the UK because, as I noted last year, laws introduced for one purpose often end up being used for something entirely different, so long as they serve the government's dubious aims.
Allow me to repeat my argument from last year: in 2008 the government used the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, rushed through two months after 9/11, against Iceland banks to freeze assets.
Technically the law allowed this, as the government had ensured that the wording was vague enough to allow it to freeze assets if it believed that an individual or nation intended to undertake “action detrimental [to] the UK's economy”.
The government even made sure that it did not have to include the phrase “terrorism-related action”, as some had wanted, and this subsequently proved useful in taking on the Icelandic banks.
But creating anti-terror laws to freeze assets in overseas banks is definitely not how the government got that law passed and was never its intention.
But it had no hesitation in using them in its own interests and I have little doubt that at some point in the future a case will arise where the Investigatory Powers Bill is used for something utterly unrelated to why it was proposed.
So despite all the grounded and well-argued points made by the world's biggest technology companies, privacy advocates and others, I'm sure the government will simply stick its metaphorical fingers in its metaphorical ears and repeat the words 'safety' and 'terrorism' over and over until it gets its way.
Happy new year.
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