UK government drops 'Orwellian' database plans

As reported here last year, in its efforts to stop terrorism and the crimes of fraudsters and paedophiles, the UK government had been floating the idea of devising a central database to contain records of all Internet activities that passed through the country. As is the norm for the UK government, potential policies are given a public airing of sorts, to see how people react. This may or may not influence what the government eventually decides to do.

In the case of the national database, the government has backed down, largely thanks to the complaints of those who argue that it would have negative effects on privacy and civil liberty.

As PCPro is reporting, the government wants ISPs to keep these records. The records are similar to those currently kept of landline and mobile phone calls. The actual content of the emails, blog postings, and uploads to social networking sites will not be retained. What will be retained is who emails whom and which sites people visit--or at least the dates and IP addresses involved in such emails and site visits.

Jacqui Smith, the UK Home Secretary, conceded that a central government database would be not only ethically problematic but also technically difficult, raising security issues of a more serious nature than is likely in the current, dispersed data retention structures of private companies. She says, "The Government recognises the privacy implications in holding all communications data from the UK in a 12-month period in a single store. The Government therefore does not propose to pursue this approach."

Although, according to the BBC, the Conservatives are claiming victory in getting the government's original plans scrapped, the Liberal Democrats have been the most consistently vocal in their opposition to such a database, noting that it constituted an unwarranted intrusion in the privacy of the vast majority of citizens who are law-abiding. The logic runs something like this: just because some people are thieves and have stolen property in their homes, does not mean that the police should have carte blanche to enter everyone's home searching for stolen goods. The Liberal Democrats and others have called the scheme "Orwellian" in its scope and intrusiveness.

Chris Huhne, of the Liberal Democrats, says, "I am pleased that the Government has climbed down from the Big Brother plan for a centralised database of all our emails and phone calls. However, any legislation that requires individual communications providers to keep data on who called whom and when will need strong safeguards on access. It is simply not that easy to separate the bare details of a call from its content. What if a leading business person is ringing Alcoholics Anonymous, or [in a reference to Smith's husband's renting pornography at the public expense] a politician's partner is arranging to hire a porn video?"

Rather, the program Smith wants to see implemented would cost the government £2 billion over the next decade. This money would go to ISPs to help them to organize the records the government wants stored for a period of at least one year.

The UK security services would use a variety of techniques to explore the data retained at will. But, because most of their investigations would be performed without warrants, the materials gained could not be used in the courts, except in exceptional circumstances.

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