The British Government recently signalled its intention to roll out a blanket surveillance policy that may be formally announced as early as next month during the Queen’s speech.
BIG BROTHER STATE
If such legislation is passed then personal data such as the contents of your emails, telephone conversations and internet browsing history may be recorded and tracked in real time by intelligence officials. Although the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) already intercepts such data, they are only permitted to record where and when communications are made and not the content of the data itself. However under the proposed new rules Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and other internet firms such as Google and Twitter could become obligated to hand over their users’ data logs to the GCHQ allowing it access on demand.
Normally, analysts would have to formally request sensitive data during the course of an investigation and apply to the Court for a search warrant. By allowing the GCHQ to negate the need for a warrant, the British Government is creating a leviathan-esque surveillance machine capable of capturing and recording details of every e-communication transmitted in the UK.
Such a measure begs the question – what of our human rights? More specifically – what of Article 8 Right to Privacy under the Humans Right Act 1998?
The Home Office claim this move is vital if they are to tackle crime and terrorism effectively. To placate the masses they have cited the ‘contact not content’ principle is being applied; that authorised officials are only interested in who people are communicating with as opposed to details of the communications themselves. A similar proposal was suggested by the Labour Government in 2008 but was shot down after being met with huge opposition led, somewhat ironically, by the Conservatives.
Unsurprisingly, this proposal has been met with strong criticism from all corners of the UK with many likening it to the surveillance regimes currently adopted by states such as China and Iran.
Conservative lawmaker David Davis stated, “It is not focusing on terrorists or on criminals, it is absolutely everybody. Our freedom and privacy has been protected by using the courts by saying: ‘If you want to intercept, if you want to look at something, fine. If it is a terrorist or a criminal, go and ask a magistrate and you’ll get your approval.’ You shouldn’t go beyond that in a decent, civilized society, but that is what is being proposed.”
The legality of this proposal has been called into question by EU lawyers who feel that the European Commission (EC) would object on the grounds that Data Protection Directive (95/46/EC), the E-privacy Directive (2002/58/EC) as well as the Data Retention Directive would likely be breached not to mention Article 8 of the aforementioned Human Rights Act. This would not be the first time the EC has taken issue with the British Government’s policy towards online privacy.
During their campaign in the lead up to the last general election, the British Government promised to erode the state’s power and return it to the public to protect and maintain their civil liberties. This proposal represents something of a u-turn and flies in the face of policies such as the Protection of Freedoms Bill which is designed with a view to reinforcing the principles of the Human Rights Act.
Indeed, further proposals which will allow ministers to hold Court proceedings in secret involving civil cases against the British Government only serves to heighten public hostility towards the proposed measures.
The British Government is split on the issue with David Cameron and Nick Clegg airing their differences in opinion to the local public. On 3 April 2012 Mr Cameron said “As I see it, there are some significant gaps in our defences, gaps because of the moving on of technology – people making telephone calls through the internet, rather than through fixed line – but also gaps in our defences because it isn’t currently possible to use intelligence information in a court of law without sometimes endangering national security. I want us – and the Government wants us – to plug those gaps but let’s be clear, we will do it in a way that properly respects civil liberties.”
Following suit, Justice Secretary Ken Clarke commented on the frenzy being needlessly whipped up by the media. “The hoo-hah at the moment is based on rather alarming descriptions of what we are supposed to be doing. With communications, at the moment, records of all phone calls are kept and can be accessed. You can’t listen to the phone call, if you are an intelligence man, but you can get a list of all the phone calls in the last year. If you want to listen to any of it, if you want to snoop, then you’ve got to get a warrant signed by the Home Secretary. Technology has moved on… so what is proposed is the rules nobody was complaining about when it was telephone calls should now be extended to others, with the same safeguards.”
Another bone of contention of the proposed policy are the associated costs, which industry experts warn will run in to millions of pounds, with the implementation of requiring hardware upgrades to existing surveillance servers. This, of course, will be met either by the taxpayer or ISPs (who are likely to pass their costs onto the consumer). In any event, those making use of e-communication will be paying extra to ensure the British Government can monitor their activity more effectively.
At the crux of the issue is striking a correct balance between monitoring and tracking criminals and engaging in ‘Big Brother’ activity thereby infringing upon our human right to privacy – something that the UK has become infamous for in recent years.
It remains to be seen if the British Government will stick to its guns and press ahead with the proposed reforms. As in 2008, public opposition is extremely fierce which may well force Mr Cameron and co into re-thinking their ideas or even backing down altogether. Whatever decision is taken, this is certainly not the last we will hear of the issue.