What does the public know about cyber security?

When the Investigatory Powers Act received Royal Assent in November 2016, cyber security experts were torn on the outcome.

The new ‘Snooper’s Charter’ gives British intelligence agencies and law enforcement bodies the power to gather data and intercept the online communications of UK citizens.

The government argues that this Big Brother-style approach will make it easier to investigate and potentially prevent acts of terrorism and other major crimes. However, privacy campaigners and online security experts have determined that the sweeping provisions of the lettering of the law mean that the government now has the ability to spy on any of our activities at any time – whether we’re surfing under suspicion or not.

Considering the relative whimper of opposition to the bill, we wondered just how aware the public is when it comes to all things online privacy. We conducted a survey to find out the public’s prevailing attitudes towards the Snooper’s Charter, expectations of online privacy, and what they can do to help keep the Investigatory Powers Act in the dark.

The results show that there’s a long way to go to fully educate the general public about the risks of losing our online privacy.

Public Awareness

According to the results of our survey, less than a quarter (24%) of people have heard of the Investigatory Powers Act – and another seven in ten (70%) said they weren’t aware of the possibility that their online activity was being monitored by the government. It’s a shock to think that this erosion of our online privacy could fly so far under the radar, but even more unnerving is what people believe this gives authorities the power to do.

The Snooper’s Charter allows almost 50 UK agencies and bodies to have access to records stored by your Internet Service Provider (ISP) for a whole year. So ISPs, like Sky and Virgin, are now legally obligated to keep tabs on your internet history – for perhaps even longer than you do on your own devices.

Only 36% of the people we surveyed knew this.

31% believe that our mobile devices are also under watch – with the government conceivably able to monitor your phone calls and texts, and watch what apps are installed on your phone.

However, a third (33%) of the people we surveyed don’t believe that the government agencies in question have any such powers or abilities, despite the upcoming enforcement of the Act.

And nor is there any broad knowledge of who exactly can see your info. There are 48 different agencies, to be exact, who have access to all our online activity. Just over half of the people asked are aware that the police and intelligence services will be privy to your records, but far fewer people suspect that HMRC (26%), the Department for Work & Pensions (12%) and even the Food Standards Agency (9%) are able to see what you get up to online.

Privacy Attitudes

We presented respondents with the full details of the changes in the law and how these amendments would affect our day-to-day lives.

We were interested to find that, if told that their information would be used to prevent potential terrorist activity, 63% of respondents would give their consent to the government and approved third parties to view and monitor all their online and digital activity.

We were also surprised to find that, without being informed of that express purpose, more than two in five UK adults (41%) would still allow it.

In 18 to 24-year olds the consent gap is at its largest – 32% would give their consent, but 68% would not. Then, strangely, in 25-34s the split is exactly 50/50 in favour of and opposed to the move. The swing back to No does then occur in each of the older age groups we surveyed.

The almost imperceptible gap in 25-34s could be ascribed to this age group of so-called Millennials. Given their firmer grasp of both old and emerging communications and media from around the turn of the century, they may make their decisions using a wider range of sources both online and offline. Other age groups may take their viewpoints from a narrower pool – mostly offline in older people, or mostly online in younger people.

What worries us the most about the new governmental powers is the ability to capture our personal data, with 30% of respondents expressing their concerns of having sensitive information like browsing histories and devices being no longer secure.

However, despite people’s most prominent worries like device hacking (30%) and the monitoring of browser histories (28%), phone calls and texts (28%), 43% of those we surveyed said they weren’t at all worried about what the government could be looking at.

While there’s been a huge backlash against the new Draconian way of observing our online habits – not to mention the 200,000-strong petition and ongoing preparation to face it down in court – it seems that there’s not enough of an awareness of what the Investigatory Powers Act has free rein to do.

Those most strongly opposed to the action can, for now, take steps to ensure their privacy is protected online through Virtual Private Networks (VPN) or Tor access.

But without the right to communicate online privately or securely, the Investigatory Powers Act looks set to change the course of our everyday lives, whether we know it or not.