Monday, September 15, 2003

Labour adds some more blocks to the British police state

Several reports over the last week or so illustrate how the govt is trying to turn "big brother" (that is Orwell's big brother, nothing to do with the silly TV show) into a reality.

The Telegraph and the BBC were among those to report two developments.

Firstly the revival of the ``snooper's charter'', whereby numerous govt agencies will be given the right to demand communications data -- who you email, which websites you visit, who you phone and the location of your mobile phone whilst switched on -- from telecomms providers. In the new form, 6 govt agencies will gain automatic access to this data on their own authority, namely the UK Atomic Energy Constabulary, the Scottish Drugs Enforcement Agency, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the Financial Services Authority, the Radiocommunications Agency and the Office of the Ombudsman for Northern Ireland. However hundreds of other bodies including local councils will be able to get access via making a request via the Interception of Communications Commissioner. The earlier form gave automatic access to all the bodies. Note that the police, MI5, MI6, GCHQ, Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise have had these powers since the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 came into force. Note also that the fire services and ambulance services are to get these powers to combat hoax calls -- but surely there's no need for them to monitor email and website access for this purpose?

The second development is that the govt has published the so-called "voluntary code" for communications providers to store the above data for 12 months, so that the agencies with access to it can perform retrospective trawling. I say "so-called" voluntary code because the govt is threatening a compulsory code if the telecomms industry continues to resist the efforts to impose this.

The Guardian also reported on these plans.

So what will the likely impact be? The first point to note is that it will be trivial for terrorists or organised criminals to avoid being caught out by these plans. The options for doing so range from regularly buying and changing unregistered pay-as-you-go mobile phones, using anonymous internet accouts or accounts opened under false identities and regularly changing them, using face-to-face contact, "dead drops", sending communications by post and many other means of communicating secretly or anonymously. They could even steal mobile phones for the purpose. The implication thus is that the people who will be snooped on will be the law abiding general public and the stupid/technologically illiterate criminals.

But it does not end there. There is also the scope for abuse. A govt department, reeling under embarassing revelations uncovered by a journalist, may use access to this information to track down the journalists sources, or failing that, track down the journalists friends and acquaintances in order to put maximum pressure on the journalist. Another govt department might decide to find out who visits the websites for an opposition group, again with sinister motives in mind.

But it does not even end there. The govt is requiring telecomms providers to store this information for upto 1 year. Thus there will be multiple databases of varying degrees of security with this information stored on them, and staff to deal with them. The staff could be intimidated or bribed to get information for organised criminals or terrorists. The databases themselves may become the target of hackers.

So in return for a few stupid or illiterate criminals being caught, we are being asked to let the govt perform the electronic equivalent of tailing all of us for a year and storing the records of who we meet and where we go and then risking this information being used against us by numerous govt agencies, officials and even criminals. The Stasi would have been proud of such a creation.

Finally, another illustration of the mind set of this govt. The govt has published its green paper on children's services, ostensibly looking at better ways of protecting children. Many of the recommendations are sensible. But the govt couldn't help suggesting that every child be issued an ID card apparently for their protection. Quite why issuing ID cards to those who will never be abused will help isn't explained. But what is clear is that this will ensure that all children grow up accustomed to having an ID card, linked to centralised database with information about them shared between all and sundry in govt. Thus even if their plan to impose ID cards on us all fails now, they'll at least educate the next generation to regard them as "normal".

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