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People in the UK were hugely upset about the introduction of identity cards, so much so that the idea was ultimately abandoned. Asking someone British to prove that was the case seemed beyond the pale, an Englishman’s word is his bond after all.
But the issue of ID cards seems rather small fry when you consider the latest plans that the government is proposing to protect us from Those Who Would Do Us Harm. What are these plans? Only to keep a record of who, when and for how long you spent on every phone call, text, email, and page visit. It’s not all bad though, security services will have to get a warrant if they want to examine the content of your private communications. So that’s alright.
David Davis, former Conservative shadow home secretary has pointed out that extending the police and MI5’s powers to monitor the general public’s email and online browsing is unnecessary and will only serve to produce public resentment.
A similar system had been proposed in 2009 but never got anywhere as the question of who was going to pay, ISPs, phone companies or the government meant that no-one wanted to take it on.
The proposals are likely to be announced in the Queen’s Speech on May ninth and will this time focus on internet service providers collecting and storing the information which will then be available for intelligence agencies to peruse and, if they see anything they deem suspicious, scrutinise. Many civil liberties groups are speaking out against the proposals as they will give the government the opportunity to ride rough shod over the privacy of UK citizens.
The notion that if you don’t have anything to hide then you don’t have anything to fear is something that is often trotted out by Armchair Generals in face of moves that are ostensibly designed to protect us but that degrade our civil liberties. These laws presume everyone is guilty of something, their rights to privacy are forfeit until it has been proven that they have done nothing wrong.
In reality the average person really doesn’t have too much to fear, the security services aren’t too interested in what you did at the weekend that you shared on FaceBook, they will use these powers to target realistic threats to national security. However, those threats are ultimately more tech savvy than those who are watching them and can easily avoid detection through smurfing, using cloaked and proxy servers and IP addresses along with many other strategies that we will never hear about.
Since the threat from the IRA and other external terrorist agencies has diminished MI5 and MI6 have been looking more and more inwardly, to the radical left, anarchist groups, environmental and animal rights activists, monitoring them and keeping abreast their activities to the extent that several police forces have implanted undercover officers into some green groups for years, some going as far as to have children with the subjects of their surveillance. Giving “The Government” the power to intrude upon the legal activities of anyone it regards as a threat ultimately means that legitimate opposition and free speech is going to become fair game for monitoring and scrutiny by those who have positioned themselves as guardians of our security against unknown and unnamed threats.
In the Civil Liberties section of the coalition agreement both parties vowed to “end the storage of internet and email records without good reason" because Britain had become, in their words: ” too authoritarian.”
A similar plan was introduced in Germany in 2010. It led to 35,000 complaints being taken to the Supreme Court who subsequently overturned the law. The law, if passed here, wil cause huge public resentment in a government who is already vilified for its policies on taxation, bankers bonuses and education. A policy where all people who use a phone or the internet are placed under suspicion will further weaken them in the eyes of the public.
Anthony Glees, director of the Centre for Security and Intelligence at the University of Buckingham supported the measures citing the recent killings of soldiers and children in Toulouse saying that it was necessary to do it “because it can be done.” I, personally, find it rather sinister that educators and researchers are proposing measures essentially on the basis that the power and ability automatically gives them the right.
The justification for these new powers are down to today’s flavour of the month for pushing things through, the Olympics and the Jubilee. Of course if the Queen announces the plans in May it won’t be possible to put the laws on the statute books before 2013 unless the government takes the extra-ordinary step of pushing them through as quickly as possible, meaning that they won’t receive proper hearing, perusal or consultation.
One person who will almost certainly be having his communications monitored is Nick Pickles, director of Big Brother Watch. He said that the move was "an unprecedented step that will see Britain adopt the same kind of surveillance seen in China and Iran. This is an absolute attack on privacy online and it is far from clear this will actually improve public safety, while adding significant costs to internet businesses."
Shami Chakarabati of Liberty simply said:
“This is more ambitious than anything that has been done before, it’s a pretty drastic step in a democracy.”
When the last Labour government tried to introduce similar laws to keep track of communications activity they dropped the bill following widespread criticism and anger, not least from the then shadow government, the Conservatives and Liberals who now form the coalition government. In 2009 David Cameron himself said “The action we take to rein in Labour's control state and confront Labour's surveillance state will help rebalance power in one direction by enhancing personal freedom and limiting the state's power over us."
However, now that the boot is on the other foot all that information looks very very attractive.