We tend to be rather protective of citizens' rights to privacy here in the UK. Recent events have certainly proved it's something we feel strongly about: the whole country has been up in arms about the News International hacking allegations, and every time Facebook puts a foot wrong it is called to account.
Well, now it is our own government at the heart of a fierce privacy debate. If a new bill, which is expected to be mentioned in the Queen's speech next month, gets through Parliament (and, in all likelihood, it will), GCHQ will be able to access data on everyone's web usage and phone calls, in 'real time' and 'on demand' (rather than needing a warrant to do so). Not just the web usage and phone calls of suspected terrorists and villains, but everyone. Should we be worried?
In answer to the uproar, the government is insisting that this is merely an updating of current rules: it will be easier for intelligence officials to gain access to information about who someone is communicating with, how often and for how long, but the intention is not for general snooping on Joe Bloggs (a court order would still be required to access the content of emails and social networking messages, for example).
A Home Office spokesman explained: "We need to take action to maintain the continued availability of communications data as technology changes. Communications data includes time, duration and dialling numbers of a phone call, or an email address. It does not include the content of any phone call or email and it is not the intention of government to make changes to the existing legal basis for the interception of communications."
In her windy explanatory piece in The Sun, Home Secretary Theresa May said she is "not willing to risk more terrorist plots succeeding and more paedophiles going free" (fair enough) and that "looking at who a suspect talks to can lead police to other criminals." That's great and I'm not against the authorities following internet communications to prevent terrorism and bust open disgusting paedophile rings, not in the slightest.
But what does it all have to do with me? Why will it be necessary to track the online movements of everyone in the country, permanently? We are talking about a serious amount of data here and gathering it is going to cost a predicted £2bn in the first decade (a bill that will be footed by – you guessed it! – us). Surely when one suspected villain is frequently talking to an unknown person online, the cops can go and check that guy out? And then the next, and so on.
There is also, I think, the question of the bad guys going deeper underground. An unchecked villain who feels he is in no way suspected of any wrongdoing might slip up; but one living in a country where every citizen is being constantly and silently monitored is bound to employ tricks to scramble his online movements.
The creators of Tor, an internet anonymity shield, have already said they will support people in the UK wishing to evade detection by the authorities. Heck, even The Guardian ran a piece advising on the numerous free and easy ways people could keep emails private from the government. If the idea isn't infallible, what's the point?
While the thousands of comments posted online have included some along the lines of 'if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear', and while May tries to reassure us that "ordinary people" have nothing to worry about, I think many do, quite rightly, hold real fears about what this means for the relationship between the people and the state.
The real buzzwords on the message boards are 'control' and 'oppression'. And in a country which wants to pride itself on freedom of thought and speech, it feels very uncomfortable each time a little more of that freedom seems to slip through our fingers.
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