The Snooper’s Charter becomes reality – a few ideas on how to keep Big Brother’s nose out of your affairs

While almost everyone in the country seemed to be busy arguing the pros and cons of Brexit, the so-called ‘Snooper’s Charter’ seemingly crept under the radar, quietly receiving royal assent and becoming law on Tuesday. The UK authorities now have more power to eavesdrop on their citizens than most of the free world, including the US.

Some time before the 31st December this year, web and phone companies will become bound to store and retain everyone’s web browsing histories for at least 12 months. Police, security services and a whole raft of agencies – including the taxman and even the Food Standards Agency – will be given unprecedented access to your data.

Police and security services will also be given new powers to hack into computers and phones. Big Brother has now gained legal access to information that would have astonished even George Orwell.

But is there anything you can do to keep prying eyes off your information? In a nutshell, yes. These are some of the ways you can set about it – but you might want to think twice before you do, as they all come with drawbacks…..

Proxy servers

When you go online, your internet service provider (ISP) knows about it – and logs which sites you visit. One way of getting around this is to use something called a proxy server. If it is a true proxy server, your ISP will know you visited it, but not what sites you visited afterwards. It acts rather like a gateway to an invisible land beyond.

The catch? Many of these proxies are slow and you never really know who is behind them. By using them you run the risk of opening your PC up to malicious security breaches. If they are hosted in the UK, they will be caught by the same rules and required to keep logs that may have to be handed over anyway, which is why many of them are located overseas in jurisdictions whose authorities do not possess such draconian data access powers as the UK.

Virtual Private Networks

Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) encrypt the traffic between your PC and their servers, meaning your ISP can’t see its final destination.

Many different companies sell VPN services, but if you want to keep your web activity private from the UK agencies that can now access your data, you need to choose one that is not located in the UK. There are lots of legitimate reasons for doing so – if you are learning French, you would choose a French VPN which would give you access to France-only TV services. On the other hand, services like the BBC iPlayer would be blocked to you if you exclusively used a French IP address. So you might want to mix-and-match your ISP and VPN use as needed.

The VPN you choose would depend on your needs and there are plenty of detailed reviews of available VPN services on the web. Most smartphones and tablets are also capable of using VPN networks but of course, many of the better ones require payment of a small monthly fee.

Whichever one you choose there are likely to be some technical issues involved in setting up and accessing the service and some websites will either be inaccessible or will fail to display correctly as some browser software just won’t work properly through a VPN.

Web tracking

Even if you do elect to use a VPN, by default your computer browser collects information about the sites you access, as do advertising services, using something called ‘cookies’. The good news is that by going into your browser settings, you can turn them off. The bad news is that if you do then again, some websites won’t work as they should do. It’s really your call; you can check what cookies are currently tracking you here.

Oh, and to make things even more secure (or complicated!), to keep your email away from prying eyes you might also want to consider signing up for a secure email system such as ProtonMail.

Mobile phones

There’s bad news here too – cellular networks always track where you are. Buying lots of cheap mobile phones with pay-as-you-go SIM cards like they do in crime dramas is probably overkill. Unless your surname is Capone – in which case you’re probably dropping another one into a bin somewhere right now.

You can’t really hide (without a massive amount of effort and technical knowledge)

In the final resort, if the security services, Police or other agencies want to track your online behaviour, they will. They’re also more likely to become suspicious if you start trying to shield what you’re up to.

Perhaps your best hope is the sheer volume of data that’s out there. Behave normally and it’s less likely you’ll attract Big Brother’s attention. A bit like in Edgar Allen Poe’s story The Purloined Letter, sometimes it really is best to hide your secrets in plain sight.

Image credit: Flickr