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Every step you take, every move you make: The British government's new plans for mass surveillance

For the past 18 months, I've been investigating the export of surveillance technologies from Western countries to despotic regimes, but I never thought I'd see a democratic government proposing to install the kind of mass surveillance system favoured by Al-Assad, Mubarak and Gaddafi. Yet the Home Office's latest plans would allow the authorities unprecedented levels of access to the entire population's phone records, emails, browsing history and activity on social networking sites, entirely unfettered by the courts. This is a system that has no place in a country that would call itself free and democratic.

The idea of a 'modernised' (read, 'more invasive') surveillance law was first proposed by the Labour government in 2009. They argued that changes were required in order to restore the status quo of the early 1990s, when we all used landlines and BT ran all the networks. Call and location records were generated and stored by BT for commercial purposes, and the police thus had ready access to pretty much every communication in Britain. But in the era of Google, Facebook and Twitter, the authorities have been cut off from significant chunks of people's communications and a lot of data resides on foreign servers. The government designed the 'Interception Modernisation Programme' to give themselves access to all this juicy new information, but after controversy about the cost, ethics and feasibility of the project it was ditched in the run-up to the 2010 general election.

The Coalition Agreement that formed the current government clearly stated that IMP-style mass surveillance of the British public was unacceptable, but now the old policy seems to have risen from the grave as the innocuously-named Communications Capabilities Development Programme. The Home Office will try to pretend that the CCDP is a brand new idea, in that it forces companies to store data locally and make it accessible to police whenever they request, rather than automatically transferring data from ISPs and mobile network providers to GCHQ for centralised storage. But the idea of a central database was abandoned before IMP was formally proposed, so in fact the two projects are basically identical. More importantly, the principle is the same: the government should have the right to intercept everyone's communications, all of the time, without the inconvenient requirement of judicial warrants.

The Leveson Inquiry has shown us just how dangerous unfettered police powers can be. We know now that information, once collected, can never be 100% secure and is always vulnerable to exposure by human error or corruption. Yet in the midst of a recession, the government wants to spend billions of pounds peering into our private lives with an intensity that would make even the most ruthless tabloid journalist blush.

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Comments

Submitted by D. Murphy (not verified) on

"I never thought I'd see a democratic government proposing to install the kind of mass surveillance system favoured by Al-Assad, Mubarak and Gaddafi."This is fear-mongering at its worst. What is being proposed in the UK is nothing like the surveillance apparatus used by the likes of Mubarak and Gaddafi. These dictators operated a system of wholesale monitoring and communications interception without any restraint or oversight. To intercept communications in the UK the secretary of state will have to approve a warrant, and for any communications data to be obtained senior authorities have to sign it off. There is also additional scrutiny at an independent level from the surveillance commissioner and from the interception commissioner. It is sensationalist and ill-informed to make comparisons to authoritarian dictatorships in this context -- you are spreading panic and misinformation by doing so. That's not to say we shouldn't be concerned about any push towards more monitoring -- we should. But the debate must be reasoned and factual.

Submitted by Michael (not verified) on

Actually, the issue of warrants is the biggest source of objections to this scheme, in that it absolutely does NOT require a warrant to assemble a dossier of intelligence on random individuals using their preferred websites and email contacts. If it required a warrant it would be far less bad of a law and I am hopeful that the recent climbdown will lead to an amendment requiring warrants as appropriate.

Submitted by Bob Bobson (not verified) on

As has been stressed by better people than me, actual organized criminals can get around most of the proposed surveillance through pretty basic methods. From using cash bought pay as you go mobiles to using Wifi hotspots, or if slightly more technically adept, proxy servers. The suggestions from the government are very expensive, very intrusive and conversely very useless. They come across as recommendations made by people with little understanding of the technology they are hoping to use and so they are just trying to throw a blanket filled with holes over the whole situation giving the double whammy of a much less democratic but no safer society.

Submitted by Peter Jennings (not verified) on

Let's call this for what it is...Big Brother, the sight of a gov't boot stomping on a human face forever. It is the last gasp of a paranoid system bringing about its own demise through its arrogance and insistance to ignore its mandate, whilst spending fortunes abroad and suppressing its people at home. Meanwhile, their feathered nests (called corporations) run about with impunity and with all the tax exemptions and bonuses they want.

This proposed legislation (isn't a law) is a trojan horse and no amount of warrants could dress this up to look pretty. It is an ugly piece of work which hit every ugly branch as it fell from the ugly tree.

If the public did their due dilligence and researched what has been going on worldwide over the last century, they will not look to their gov'ts for help. Exactly the opposite in fact. We are being tricked again and again, and it's a well trodden path for these gov'ts & bankers and now...corporations.
The British people need to get themselves out of this state of denial.

Submitted by Alastair McGowan (not verified) on

The proposal so far offers no appropriate safeguards. The capacity could turn out to be even worse than Orwell. To say Minority Report is not scaremongering but an informed guess and challenge to the government to prove: what safeguards will prevent the state using social network analysis and artificial intelligence to turn on the population, nobble political opposition, and neutralise activists who lead movements against government policy. Calling our concerns scaremongering is to say that we should not challenge government on in-extremis potential of this very intrusive profiling capacity on the privacy of our freedom of association. Judicial oversight and enhanced powers of the intelligence and security committee are vital and appropriate. This is a capacity whose authorisation ought not to rest with a minister but with cross-party approval. The abilities are historically unprecedented. Giving security services a free hand is like saying 'we trust you not to abuse these powers despite your ministerial masters having political bias and most of your activities taking place in secret'.

Submitted by Chris E (not verified) on

Here's an idea, on the premise that 'you have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide' why isn't this proposed surveillance system trialled on MPs first with all of the data published?

In the aftermath of the expenses scandal more transparency from those elected by us would be very welcome (let's not forget they work for us). Their official work email would be exempt for obvious data protection reasons but all of their other web traffic would be monitored. Not only would it be a unique and valuable insight into aspects of our elected representatives' lives but their eager adoption of such a system would be an example to the rest of us and would surely allay many of our fears when the system is eventually rolled out to the rest of us. If it's a failure of course, costs would have been limited - everyone's a winner! Please consider suggesting this to your local MP.

Submitted by infosec enthusiast (not verified) on

As if it's not happening already? How many times does one get his image taken by just talking up the road?

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