1984 was supposed to be a warning, not a handbook

The Home Office's plans to monitor people's messages online are an unprecedented attack on privacy. Didn't they receive the memo? 1984 was never intended as a handbook

So now you know...
Emma Carr
On 3 April 2012 12:07

From the very beginning the Coalition Government sold themselves as being a government that would bring an end to intrusions on our privacy and civil liberties that had begun to drip down into our everyday lives. The Coalition agreement stated that “We will implement a full programme of measures to reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties and roll back state intrusion” and “We will end the storage of internet and email records without good reason.

Although that was only two years ago, the government has announced a policy that marks a complete u-turn on the promises that were originally made by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.

The Home Office felt the need to drop a Big Brother sized bomb on Sunday morning in the form of the Communication Capabilities Development Programme (CCDP). The proposals would introduce an unprecedented level of surveillance in a democratic society that would put the UK on a par with China and Iran. If the proposals get through parliament, Government and intelligence officers will be handed powers to monitor people’s messages online. 

It is expected that next month’s Queen’s Speech will advocate the monitoring of social media, online gaming forums, calls, emails, texts and website traffic and the right to know who is speaking to each other, when and how. 

The Home Office has said that the new law would keep crime-fighting abreast of communications developments and that a warrant would still be required to view the content of messages. After almost 48 hours of negative media the Home Office finally decided this morning to defend the plans. The justification for the new legislation is that it would shift from preventing incidents to helping convict people afterwards, as in the case of Ian Huntely. Big Brother Watch (BBW) has highlighted that in Huntley’s case all of the data that would be required to highlight that he may be a danger to children was very much in the police’s domain, therefore the amount of data available to the authorities was not the issue – it was how they used it.

Aside from the civil liberties argument, it is unclear whether GCHQ actually have the technical ability to collect all of this data. Questions have been raised about whether it is possible to capture some communications data (e.g. web addresses) without actually capturing at least some of the content (e.g. messages, search requests). It has also been suggested that CCDP will introduce vulnerabilities that as yet do not exist in online infrastructure, which could be exploited by criminals or hackers. Arguably, CCDP may also lead officials to devote more of their resources to detecting low priority crimes rather than focusing on the more serious crimes that would require other, more traditional methods.

BBW has also taken a look at the case of the 7/7 bomb plotters. The Coroner’s report discusses the issues involved with large amounts of data and surveillance, concluding that: “Post 7/7 enquiries revealed that … there were forty one telephone contacts between mobile phones attributed to Tanweer, Khan, and Lindsay and hydroponics outlets. It is unlikely these could have been detected by surveillance given the large number of untraceable “operational” phones used by the bombers and only attributed to them once their identities and details were known.

This blatant scaremongering over terrorists and paedophiles is not only a cheap and petty way of forcing policy through, but, if we fail to learn the lessons of history, public safety will actually be worse off. The twitter reaction this morning, condemning the Home Office’s “won’t somebody think of the children” line, highlights that this is one justification that doesn’t quite cut it.

It is integral that the word is spread: the Home Office plans are an unprecedented attack on privacy online. Not only is it far from clear that this will actually improve public safety, (and if it was so integral, shouldn’t it have been in place in time for the Olympics?) but the mass collection of data could in fact lead to the obscuring of the information that they were looking for in the first place.

Emma Carr is the Deputy Director of Big Brother Watch. Follow her on twitter @EmmaFrancesCarr

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