Last April Fool’s Day, the BBC reported that the UK government was planning to introduce legislation that would allow the monitoring of all the “calls, emails, texts and website visits of everyone in the UK” by the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) intelligence agency. The information would be monitored in real-time and then stored for two years before being erased. The government needed the monitoring capability, it said, to be able to “investigate serious crime and terrorism and to protect the public.”
The government also promised that the legislation would “ensure that the use of communications data is compatible with the government's approach to civil liberties.”
It's good to see the tradition of doublethink is alive and well in the UK.
Almost immediately, members of even the government’s own party said that this legislation was a massive overreach and threatened civil liberties. Telecommunication and Internet providers weren’t too happy either, saying that the program was going to be expensive and a nightmare to implement.
A pre-legislative parliamentary scrutiny committee was set up to look into the feasibility of the proposed legislation, now being dubbed the “snoopers charter.” By late autumn, word was that the committee did not like what it saw and was preparing to say so in a report in early December. The UK Home Secretary, Theresa May, was aggressively pushing the legislation and on 3 December, upon hearing of the committee’s unflattering appraisal of it, launched a preemptive strike on the committee’s findings. She told the Sun newspaper that the legislation had to be passed, otherwise “we could see people dying” and “criminals going free” including “pedophiles who will not be identified.” She also warned of a reduction in “our ability to deal with this serious organized crime.”
May concluded, “Anybody who is against this bill is putting politics before people’s lives.”
However, the committee was unimpressed by May’s "you are either with us or against us" attack. On 10 December, the Guardian published a story detailing the committee's determination that the legislation was unworkable as written, that it “tramples on the privacy of British citizens,” and further that the estimated cost of the effort of some £1.8 billion over 10 years was “fanciful and misleading.” Nick Clegg, the leader of the government’s Liberal Democrat coalition party, told May, “We cannot proceed with this bill and we have to go back to the drawing board."
So politics and common sense won out, at least for a little while. There were warning signs that this wouldn't last, however. While May stated that she was “open-minded” about changing the legislation, the Guardian reported that she “remained determined to introduce it before the session ends next spring and get it on the statute book before the next election.”
This week May's snooping desires got a boost as the London Telegraph reported that the cross-party parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) has come out in support of the "snoopers charter," though it also warned that the “the government must do more to convince public of the need for them.” Hmm, sounds like it time to beat the “it’s all for the sake of the children” drum a bit louder, or maybe, to say, a la Orwell, that the charter is needed as an “act of self-defense against a homicidal maniac.”
According to the Telegraph, the Director General of MI5, Jonathan Evans, said that without the legislation, “it was increasingly difficult to be confident that targets were being fully watched” because of rapid changes in communication technology. And in a related story at the Guardian, the Home Office claims that the charter is urgently needed as “there is already a 25 percent ‘capability gap’ between the tracking data that the security services need to access and their ability to do so.”
Evans did admit to the ISC, though, that the Home Office’s 25 percent figure depended upon some “pretty heroic assumptions,” the Guardian reported. In other words, it was most likely a number that made for a good news sound bite, but that the capability gap has little credibility indeed.
A story at the Daily Mail reports that the UK's intelligence service says it isn't interested in unfettered access to the content of every communication, and that its fetters would still be court orders, which it would continue to obtain. It just wants information on “who sends a message, where and how it is sent, and who receives it.”
Of course, with people's identities closely bound with their cellphones, and with all the GPS and other information that cellphones throw off these days, this metadata is often more important than the information content itself, much of which, by the way, can probably be inferred pretty quickly with advanced data analytics. And if the messages are passing though the communication channels being monitored by the U.S. National Security Agency, the contents can probably be provided to GCHQ without a UK court order request even being filed.
The Daily Mail article also points out that GCHQ isn’t worried whether the messages are encrypted, either. Apparently, it has “options” to deal with it.
How this all plays out, time will only tell. But the idea of a democratic government that maintains its belief in its citizens' right to privacy also claiming in the same breath it also has a right to snoop on all forms of electronic communication reminds me of another Orwell quote: “We have now sunk to a depth at which restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.”
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.