The majority of people in the UK have no idea the government is now monitoring their online activity, according to a new study.
A survey, conducted by a website specialising in online anonymity software, found few people were aware of the Investigatory Powers Act, dubbed the ‘Snooper’s Charter’, that came into force on January 29.
But most respondents also expressed concerns about their sensitive information being viewed by the 48 governmental agencies empowered to do so by the act.
One privacy expert described it to MailOnline as ‘the most brutal assault on the freedom of British citizens since Hitler attempted to invade our country.’
A survey of 2,000 people in the UK was undertaken by virtual private network price comparison site BestVPN.com.
It found that while people are worried about their digital movements being monitored, they are misinformed about how and why the government can track their online habits.
A third of British people thought that the government has no power to monitor online activity and the majority (76 per cent) were unaware of the regulatory powers being brought in.
The new rules mean police and other organisations are now officially able to hack into your phones and check your browsing history.
More than half (59 per cent) of respondents said they would not consent to the government or other third parties viewing and monitoring their digital activity.
And almost two thirds (63 per cent) would only agree to being monitored in order to prevent criminal activity or a potential terrorist threat.
Speaking to MailOnline Douglas Crawford, a digital privacy expert at BestVPN.com, said: ‘The Investigatory Powers Bill is the most brutal assault on the freedom of British citizens since Hitler attempted to invade our country.
‘That the government has worked hard to ensure the public is largely unaware of its existence, let alone its implications, is quite frankly criminal.
‘Repeated studies have shown that when people believe they are or might be watched, they modify their behaviour accordingly. This results in what is known as a “cooling effect.”
‘People are less willing to express dissenting views, or even to educate themselves about potentially “controversial” subjects for fear of social disapproval or more concrete repercussions.
‘Even if you have nothing to hide, a functioning democracy requires open, vigorous and robust debate.’
More than two fifths of Brits admitted to deleting their browsing history to avoid someone seeing it.
And nearly a third (32 per cent) of people confessed to hiding their internet history from their partners, and 15 per cent from their employers.
While critics have cited the new act as an attack on privacy, the government believes the charter is essential for combating terrorism and organised crime.
The law forces electronic data to be stored by companies for 12 months, which can be subsequently collected by law enforcement and other agencies.
The legislation replaced the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, which several local authorities have been accused of abusing to snoop on people feeding pigeons and failing to clear up dog mess.
However, the BestVPN.com survey found nearly a quarter of people (23 per cent) were unable to name any of the 48 agencies that can view people’s full browsing history as per the act.
More than half of respondents were aware of the police and intelligence services accessing online data, but far fewer suspected that HMRC (26 per cent), the Department for Work and Pensions (12 per cent) and the Food Standards Agency (nine per cent) now all have the authority to access online activity as part of a scheduled investigation.
When it comes to online fears, people were most afraid of the government hacking their devices (30 per cent) or surveying their browsing history (28 per cent).
Despite this, 43 per cent of people are not at all concerned about what the government could be looking at.
Aside from the controversy surrounding its morality, the charter’s effectiveness has also been questioned, with Virtual Private Network software already being highlighted as a potential way for internet users of getting around it.
Using a VPN means data will be scrambled and protected from the company that provides the connection.
In China VPNs are routinely used by expats to avoid Beijing’s rigid control of the internet, which involves blocking news websites like the BBC, anything which might be remotely critical of the Chinese Communist Party, and porn websites.
As part of the study, BestVPN.com has created the ‘Eyes on You’ quiz exploring how often in a normal day people are being tracked, to help the public understand how their privacy can be violated online.