Theresa May might have some fans but her time in the Home Office will also be remembered less favourably – by the privacy campaigners and internet industry that named her “villain of the year”.
Ms May’s time in the Home Office has been marked by conflicts with the biggest technology and internet companies over laws that would see them forced to break their own security to help surveillance. That has come despite an apparent commitment to liberal ideals in her campaign speeches, leaving many campaigners worried that she might actually pursue more aggressive policies despite her public statements.
"Theresa May has been a draconian Home Secretary, introducing the wrong policies at the wrong times for the wrong reasons,” said Harmit Kambo, campaigns director at Privacy International. “Instead of responding to public alarm about the Edward Snowden disclosures by rolling back state surveillance powers, she has instead ratcheted it up with the Investigatory Powers Bill, the most intrusive surveillance legislation of any democratic country.”
The Investigatory Powers Bill – which in its earlier form was stopped by the Liberal Democrats – looked to hand huge new surveillance powers to bodies including the police and spies. It seems to force companies to weaken their own security technology to let those authorities in, and compels internet companies to store huge amounts of data on their customers’ browsing histories, which can be accessed at any time by the Government.
Ms May’s pushing of that bill put her in a bitter and unprecedentedly public dispute with many of the biggest technology companies – including Apple, Facebook and Google – over whether the law should be passed. Campaigners argued that it was a law that allowed more intrusive surveillance than anywhere else in the world.
Her commitment to strengthening surveillance and rolling back privacy could be further strengthened by the fact that Brexit could allow the UK to opt out of many of the European laws that safeguard people’s privacy, campaigners have warned.
The first test of Ms May’s approach to surveillance will come when European courts decide on a dispute between the Government and two MPs, David Davis and Tom Watson, who argue that the DRIPA legislation that is used to spy on Britons is unlawful. The court is expected to give a preliminary judgement later this month, though it will not in itself be binding.
Campaigners say that it will be important to watch how Ms May responds to the judgement, which could compel the Government to change some of its surveillance practices. Though the UK has voted to leave the EU, it is bound to accept its judgements until it actually does so and the degree to which the new Prime Minister accepts them could define her time in power.
In the longer term, how Ms May chooses to deal with the various parts of European law that will be scrappable could define her approach to privacy. EU rules have been a restraining factor on Ms May’s Home Office, serving as a framework that protects against certain data protection abuses and forces companies to look after information in particular ways.
“If [Theresa May] goes for a full-on exit from European law, we’re going to have some really fundamental challenges,” said Jim Killock, the executive director of the Open Rights Group. “What happens to data protection law? Do we have the same standards, or ones that are similar or weaker?”
The same questions can be asked of electronic privacy regulations, net neutrality, safe harbour rules and copyright. “Nearly everything we do that’s digital is European law at the moment”, notes Mr Killock, and all of them can be re-written once Britain leaves the EU.
In the wake of all of those decisions, we could encounter problems because there will be a rush towards getting rid of regulations rather than preserving or re-writing them. The UK parliament has shown little interest in deciding on laws governing digital rights and privacy, potentially meaning that those decisions will be made by civil servants instead.
Much of the surveillance and anti-terror policy that Ms May has been criticised for began under the Labour government that preceded her. And the Home Office has gradually moved towards an approach of assuming that the best amount of surveillance is also the most, and that it is best limited by legislation that decides how exactly it can be used rather than how much data can be stored.
That will mean that the new Home Secretary is likely to keep much of the same surveillance policy, whoever is chosen to take on Ms May’s now vacant job.
Campaigners have also pointed to reasons for believing that Ms May’s new and public commitment to liberal policies could signal a switch towards being more open about privacy.
“While in opposition she opposed the introduction of ID cards,” said Mr Kambo. “As Home Secretary she has reformed police stop and search powers and has strongly supported equal marriage. She has also recently indicated that she will not pursue earlier plans to pull out of the European Convention of Human Rights, admittedly only because the majority of Parliament opposes withdrawal, not because she does.”
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