The UK is still working on beefing up its internet surveillance systems, as part of a project that activists say amounts to data mining on an absolutely massive scale. The British government says that the system store internet communications on multiple, privately held databases for at least a year, keeping them available for targeted tracking of criminals.
The bill is essentially a revision of a plan that was scrapped by the Labour government back in 2009 because of complaints from Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, which would have created a single, government controlled database of all internet traffic in the UK. The new plan is currently being examined by a joint committee of MPs and peers. It would allow officials to view metadata, like the names of files that were transferred, when and to whom messages were sent, and what websites have been accessed, without a warrant, which would be needed to actually view the content itself.
The new plan calls for a ‘request filter,' a system that would allow everyone from law enforcement to tax inspectors to dig through citizen's internet histories while conducting investigations. Obviously, there's a potential for abuse there, not only from the government, but also hackers. Considering what we know about standard corporate security practices, there's a good chance that some of these ‘private databases' will consist of plain text files.
Dr. Julian Richards, co-director of the center for security and intelligence studies at Buckingham University, says that it makes more sense to describe the ‘filter' as a search engine. “By using this filter mechanism it will look and feel the same as if there was a great big database behind the scenes that you could dip into and pull the particular information you want,” he told the BBC. He says that the current amount of difficulty involved with accomplishing that task is only benefiting terrorists and criminals.
Civil liberties and internet rights groups disagree, claiming that the new law would allow officials to build up a complex map of private communications, tying together everything from mobile phone accounts to Facebook pages. Rachel Robinson, the policy offer for the activist group Liberty, put it:
The blanket retention of data about individuals as opposed to targeted surveillance, with which we have no problem, should not be a feature of a liberal society.
And even though the UK is the only EU country looking into such a plan, the BBC says that it is based on EU directives that could eventually spread to other countries. Already, though, it's become the envy of some countries, like Germany, which Richards say is ‘way behind' the UK in implementing similar policies. And while Germany may have trouble adopting such policies because of its history of abusive regimes, Richards says that the UK should have no such problem.
“…this is a very much more difficult issue in the Federal Republic than it is in the United Kingdom, where we look back with pride on our long history of democracy.” Arguments against such provisions in the UK stem more from what he called a “disturbing lack of trust in the institutions and people charged with looking after our security,” than anything else, and that the government needs to be able to keep pace with today's technology.
And even though it may not come easy, this law is another example of government attempting to place more regulations and oversight on the internet, something that activists worldwide have shown a great willingness to combat. We've got no doubt that this one will be any different, but it does point out another really disturbing trend: even in defeat, these laws always seem to come back from the dead. How long until they finally start slipping through?