Labour’s Intercept Modernisation Programme V2

A report in Saturday’s Telegraph claims that details of every phone call and text message together with email traffic and websites visited online will be stored in ISP databases and made available, without the need for a court order, to the UK intelligence services. The details are sparse, although it seems to be a renewal of Labour’s Intercept Modernisation Programme that was dropped in 2009. It may be ‘officially announced as early as May.’

If this is the case, it is likely to be ‘traffic data’ that is stored, rather than content. Government will argue that this will protect users’ privacy, while the traffic data (who is talking to whom, and when; who is visiting which dangerous or illegal websites etc) will allow the police and intelligence agencies to monitor suspected terrorists and discover potential plots.

Civil liberties groups fear that privacy is insufficiently protected, that innocent people are routinely monitored, that the databases are commercially valuable and may be misused, and that they will become a target for cybercriminals. Alexander Hanff, the managing director of Think Privacy Ltd and communications project leader at Privacy International points out that communications meta data is already required to be retained under the EU Data Retention Directive; but that this is widely believed to be ineffective for law and order purposes. 

“Last year,” he told Infosecurity “the Scientific Services of the German Parliament issued a report refuting the claims that the Data Retention Directive has significantly increased the number of convictions in the digital sphere, and an open letter was sent to the European Commission in June 2010 signed by over 100 organizations from over 20 EU Member States expressing concerns that the Directive is incompatible with the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.” The problem, he believes, is that “the technical measures used are so easy to circumvent.  Encrypting communications between computers and smart devices is already commonplace. If the Government introduces these measures it will simply make criminals more vigilant and see them adopting such technologies wholesale – making it impossible for the communications to be used in any effective sense.  With regards to cellular communications, criminals will simply use pre-paid ‘anonymous’ cell phones - again, already common practice.” In other words, it is only innocent people that will be effectively monitored while crime and terrorism is missed. What will the government do next, he asks. “Perhaps ban encryption for public use?”

Nick Pickles, director of privacy and civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch, said: "Britain is already one of the most spied on countries off-line and this is a shameful attempt to watch everything we do online in the same way.” He believes that the vast quantities of data that would be collected would make it harder for the security services to find threats before a crime is committed, and that it involves “a wholesale invasion of all our privacy online that is hugely disproportionate and wholly unnecessary.” When the internet is empowering people across the world to embrace democracy, he adds, “it is shameful for one of the world’s oldest democracies to be pursuing the kind same kind of monitoring that has a stranglehold on civil society in China and Iran.”

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