Spectral Lines: UK Wants to Track Every Move You Make

Your home may be your castle, but in the United Kingdom, the government will soon have a good idea of what goes on inside

Photo: Steve Cole/Getty Images

A version of this column appeared in IEEE Spectrum Online’s Risk Factor blog on 10 November. Charette is a contributing editor to Spectrum and a self-described ”risk ecologist,” who investigates the impact of the changing concept of risk on technology and societal development.

In the United Kingdom, your home may be your castle, but the government will soon be able to get a rather good idea of what is happening inside it.

The British government has decided to go ahead with its plans under what it calls the Intercept Modernisation Programme to force every telecommunication company and Internet service provider to keep a record of all its customers’ personal communications, showing whom they have contacted and when and where, as well as the Web sites they have visited, according to The Daily Telegraph and various other British papers.

The information gathered, The Telegraph says, will be accessible to 653 public bodies, ”including police, local councils, the Financial Services Authority, the ambulance service, fire authorities and even prison governors.

”They will not require the permission of a judge or a magistrate to obtain the information, but simply the authorisation of a senior police officer or the equivalent of a deputy head of department at a local authority,” The Telegraph says.

The only bit of good news, if you can call it that, is that the information won’t be held in a central database because of privacy concerns (that seems a bit oxymoronic to me), and the full rollout will be delayed until after the next election.

If the Tories or Liberal Democrats win, they say that the intercept program will be changed in scope and function. However, as happened in the United States after the last election, once politicians are in power, promises about privacy and spying on citizens seem to become less important.

I wonder how long it will be before the British government requires people to submit their details from Google’s new Dashboard, just to double-check that their Web habits are being captured properly. As Google notes,

the Dashboard summarizes data for each product that you use (when signed in to your account) and provides you direct links to control your personal settings. Today, the Dashboard covers more than 20 products and services, including Gmail, Calendar, Docs, Web History, Orkut, YouTube, Picasa, Talk, Reader, Alerts, Latitude and many more.

The British government is also going ahead with ContactPoint, a database containing the details of England’s 11 million children. As described in a 7 November Telegraph story,

The computerised database contains a record for each of the 11m under-18s living in England, containing their name, address, gender, date of birth and a unique identifying number. It also holds information on their parents, their nursery or school, their GP and whether they have a social worker, health visitor or probation officer assigned to them. If the young person consents, it will also give details of sexual health or drug abuse counsellors.

Interestingly, this database is assumed by the government to be secure and private. So secure and private, in fact, that the children of celebrities and certain others—for example, the children of government officials—are to be excluded from it.

It has not passed without notice on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall the irony of the British government’s dogged efforts to spy on its own people in a way that would make the Stasi envious.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s remarks marking the anniversary included this:

What has happened here in Berlin tells the world that the tides of history may ebb and flow, but that across the ages history is moving towards our best hopes, not our worst fears; towards light not darkness; and towards the fulfillment of our humanity, not its denial.

So governmental spying is moving toward our best hopes, toward light not darkness, and toward the fulfillment of our humanity? George Orwell, who once wrote, ”To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle,” would probably be very depressed by the state of affairs in the United Kingdom—but probably not very surprised.

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