Big Brother's Watching You
A police officer shadows your every move. You are not a criminal and have absolutely no intention of committing a crime, but the police officer wants to know exactly what you’re up to and where, when and how. The police officer may not listen in to your conversations but they’ll know that you spoke with a particular person at a particular time and in a particular place.
If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about. Yes?
No. Even if I have nothing to hide, I have a right to privacy. We all do. Or should do.
George Orwell is probably turning in his grave as you read this (and he's had reason to be turning for a while now?), but the government plans to allow police, intelligence and security services even more access to details of your internet use, if it manages to get its Communications Data Bill through Parliament. Keep in mind that this is in addition to existing legislation that requires phone companies to keep records of all phone calls and text messages you send.
The Communications Data Bill, which was announced the same day David Cameron appeared at the Leveson Inquiry, probably in an attempt to bury bad news, is still in the early stages, but has already attracted considerable opposition. Prominent backbenchers and civil rights groups such as Liberty have slammed the Bill as ‘intrusive’, ‘ineffective’ and dubbed it a "snooper's charter". The BBC reported that former Shadow Home Secretary David Davis even reminded the government that the Bill looked “very similar” to the last Labour government's plans for a communications database, which was dropped following Tory opposition. Another U-turn from the Tories.
Under plans introduced by Home Secretary Theresa May, all internet use would be recorded for a period of 12 months and would cover all internet activity – browsing and websites visited and the length of time spent on websites, emailing, social media and networking, internet voice and video calls and online gaming. It even extends to postal mail – be careful what you write on that postcard you send from the sun. The bill also streamlines many other acts in existence, which provide powers for authorities to monitor citizens and also seems to be an offshoot of the existing Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) which, amongst other things, “allows certain public bodies to monitor people's internet activities”.
This country seems to be all about databases – a fingerprint database, an NHS database, the police national database, an automatic number plate recognition database and many more. This would be yet another database to monitor you.
May tries to assure her critics that content would not be monitored and that it is restricted to activity, ie the ‘when’, the ‘where’ and the ‘how’, and not the ‘what’, and any desired access to content by police would still require a court warrant.
However, it is the intrusive nature of recording online activity that is sinister here. I don’t want the government or any other authority to know that I legitimately accessed a perfectly legal website to legally interact with another citizen, for example. Why should they? I have not committed a crime – clearly.
Gus Hosein, executive director of the Privacy International, the campaign group, said in the Financial Times that the legislation would “fundamentally change” the relationship between citizen and state. David Davis says: "The only people who will avoid this are the actual criminals, because there are ways around this - you use an internet cafe, you hack into somebody's WiFi, you use what's called proxy servers, and they are just the easy ways" before claiming that the legislation would only "catch the innocent and incompetent."
Other dangers exist – the usual dangers with any database. How secure will the data be collected? How can I be sure that an employee collecting the data won’t sell it, leak it (celebrities should watch out) or use it against me? And how much will it cost to secure the data? Why should an internet service provider bear this cost when it is the government who has pushed the legislation? There’s no need to worry about that, the government has promised that it would “pay the industry's bills for introducing the databases, with costs estimated to exceed £1bn (some estimates claim £1.8bn) over 10 years.” Aren’t we in austere times?
The bill isn’t opposed solely by some backbenchers and civil liberties groups either. A recent poll indicated that 72.8% of broadband users opposed extending monitoring powers, with abuse of privacy and worries about security amongst the concerns cited.
Can’t we just let George Orwell rest in peace?