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Backlash Over UK Government Plans to Extend Monitoring of Emails, Calls and Website Visits

Posted on the 03 April 2012 by Periscope @periscopepost
Backlash over UK government plans to extend monitoring of emails, calls and website visits

Weathering the storm? Home Secretary Theresa May and PM David Cameron. Photo credit: conservativeparty

Civil liberties campaigners have reacted with fury to news that the UK government plans to extend monitoring of internet activity. Under new legislation, internet firms will be required to record and hand over information on emails, texts, calls and website visits, allowing intelligence officers to monitor communications in real time. The proposals will give security officials the ability to see who is in contact with whom but not the content of the messages.

The news has raised fears of a ‘surveillance society’, particularly as the legislation will theoretically apply to everyone in the UK, rather than those suspected of illegal activity. And as Robert Booth reported for The Guardian, internet service providers are concerned about the financial and practical implications, as well as the reaction of customers.

So are the plans Big Brother gone mad, or is this a sensible solution to security fears?

Tough on crime. Technology is a crucial crime-fighting tool, argued Home Secretary Theresa May in The Sun: “Last year, police smashed a major international child pornography website based in Lincolnshire. They then used internet data analysis to find other suspected paedophiles.” However, as the law currently stands, criminals are able to use communication technology to stay one step ahead of police – and that’s why the changes are necessary. May insisted the data would only be used to track “suspected terrorists, paedophiles or serious criminals”, not to snoop on ordinary people.

A step too far. “Given the all-too-real threat of indiscriminate terrorist violence, the Government’s latest plans to expand the state’s powers to snoop on digital communications are understandable. But they tip the scales altogether too far,” said an Independent editorial. According to the editorial, one of the main issues is that the new legislation would redefine the relationship between individual and state: “Until now, that relationship has in part rested on the understanding that citizens can only be put under surveillance when a court has been convinced that there is good reason to do so. The Home Secretary’s plans turn such a notion on its head.”

“What this is talking about doing is not focusing on terrorists or criminals, it’s absolutely everybody’s emails, phone calls, web access… All that’s got to be recorded for two years and the government will be able to get at it with no by your leave from anybody,” Conservative MP David Davis told the BBC.

Information overload. The plans will generate a huge amount of new data for intelligence officers, and this may well hinder rather than help their efforts to identify terrorists, argued James Ball at The Guardian’s Comment is Free. “Adding a vast swath of unfocused surveillance data to the pile – more than a trillion emails a year are sent from the UK – increases the size of the haystack many times over, while the number of needles stays unchanged. Our security services may drown themselves in data,” Ball wrote. And the new legislation still won’t solve the problem of internet users who deploy encryption techniques to avoid surveillance.

“We need to take action to maintain the continued availability of communications data as technology changes,” said a Home Office spokesman, reported The Guardian.

Misuse of data. “What happens when information is wrongly logged — linking an innocent man to, say, a terrorist?” asked James Slack in The Daily Mail. “It’s not an exaggeration to say lives could be wrecked.” What’s more, said Slack, the data generated may not be safe: “There must also be serious concerns about what the internet companies, having been paid by the State to store this goldmine of information, will choose to do with it. Won’t they be tempted to exploit it themselves or, worse, sell the information to the highest bidder?”

Potential for abuse. The UK government “is not trusted to use these powers proportionately”, wrote Philip Johnston in The Telegraph, pointing to the stop and search powers given to police in the wake of 9/11: “This was abused: hundreds of thousands of people were stopped by policemen looking for offences of any kind, on what effectively became fishing expeditions.”

PR disaster. The proposed legislation leaves the Conservative Party open to accusations of a u-turn on surveillance, pointed out Louie Woodall on a Young Fabians blog: “A Conservative pamphlet published in 2009 entitled ‘Reversing the Rise of the Surveillance State’ savaged Labour’s record on web surveillance and promised that ‘A Conservative government will take a fundamentally different approach…[by recording] fewer personal details.’” And the Lib Dems won’t come out this will either: “Just about the only thing left the Liberal Democrats are recognised to stand up for is civil liberties, so if a policy like this is mishandled, it could undermine their ‘nice party’ image for good,” Woodall wrote.

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