Critics round on data snooping planJoel Reidenberg in Financial Times, April 06, 2012
When European technology entrepreneurs gathered at a select Downing Street reception last June, they may not have expected humour.
But David Cameron entertained his guests by mocking the French president’s efforts to exert greater control over the internet, joking that Nicolas Sarkozy – who had raised web regulation at a G8 meeting only a month before – was “totally wrong” to try to police cyberspace.
Nearly 10 months later, as civil liberties groups and politicians from across the party spectrum rail against government attempts to extend data surveillance by police and security services, Mr Cameron seems less amused.
Critics accuse ministers of turning their backs on the coalition agreement to “reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties” that it says took place under Labour.
Those who applauded the coalition’s abolition of ID cards and moves to limit pre-trial detention are now asking why it is trying to resurrect snooping schemes that were abandoned by the previous government.
Part of the anxiety surrounding Home Office plans to compel internet service providers to store the “who, when and where” of email, social messaging and Skype calls is that it would take the UK beyond what is allowed in other European countries.
A 2006 Brussels directive dictates that EU members must store telecoms data for between six months and two years, but this covers only relatively limited information and has been implemented patchily. Germany’s Constitutional Court declared it illegal in 2010 while Italian privacy laws expressly forbid internet service providers from storing citizens’ communications data.
Eric King, head of research at Privacy International, the campaign group, believes there are few precedents for what the coalition proposes, stating that it would necessitate the use of “deep packet inspection technology”. Some broadband providers deploy this technology to track the browsing habits of their own consumers, but not normally at the state’s behest.
“It’s honestly bizarre when you look at it because there are very, very few countries that do this,” Mr King said. “China does it but in limited circumstances and only in some regions. The only countries which use this regularly are Iran and Kazakhstan.”
Dominic Raab – a Conservative MP who lobbied against the data storage plans when in opposition – warned that communications data could be used as a fishing tool against the innocent public, similar to the idea of a police “pre-crime” unit parodied in the film Minority Report.
“Ministers are talking about using the data for prosecution, which is vital and should be subject to judicial warrant, but they haven’t ruled out this ‘Minority Report’ approach to surveillance to try and pre-empt threats,” Mr Raab says.
The Tory backbencher believes ministers need to push back harder against requests from the security services for more intrusive powers – but, as US commentators point out, this has become more difficult following the September 11 attacks.
Joel Reidenberg, an expert on internet privacy at Fordham University in New York, bemoans US law enforcement’s “progressive ratcheting down of the barriers on internet surveillance” in the face of the enhanced terror threat.
“It’s a growing trend. We’ve got increasing surveillance in public places and increasing capturing of data that blurs the border of what previously would have been private spheres,” he says.
Back in the UK, police and security services resist fears that the country is on the brink of a surveillance society, arguing that the extended access they are requesting would merely bring their crime-fighting techniques up-to-date with modern technology.
“My sense of this is very much having a serious debate with people on how to balance that issue of protecting their [privacy] rights and the need to have access to data in extremis and for serious crimes,” says Sir Hugh Orde, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers. “I am not sure how we get across to the public that in the routine of our day, we are not remotely interested in reading their emails or listening to what they’re saying on the phone.”
Additional reporting by Gerrit Wiesmann, Guy Dinmore, Jennifer Thompson and April Dembosky