The Communications Data Bill: Bogeymen and Blanket Surveillance

Despite warnings from digital rights groups, privacy advocates and experts in the tech world, the government has gone ahead with their plans for blanket surveillance measures on the internet, including controversial practices such as deep packet inspection (DPI).

The draft Communications Data bill published yesterday proposes that individuals’ data is stored using so called “black boxes” tracking their detailed internet use i.e. every website they visit, Google search terms, emails etc. A vast amount of data can be stored in these devices and using specialist software this data can be analysed using search functions and selection methods.

Currently Government Central Head Quarters (GCHQ) can access a large amount of data and conduct surveillance of specific suspects, the difference in the CCDP bill is that this data would be accessible in relation to any member of the public. The idea behind this seems to be that by conducting “blanket surveillance” the authorities could catch criminals who are not yet suspects.

Throwing such a wide net however would also consequently entangle innocent people and breach their privacy, while most likely only finding those criminals who lack basic internet skills. The issue here is rather who the authorities actually wish to target and where they plan to concentrate their resources, than assuming everyone is a suspected criminal. Apart from a terrifying intrusion into people’s private information this would be an arduous task for police, who currently are lacking the resources to analyse comparatively low levels of data already.

This brings me on to the next issue – costs. The proposed cost for the implementation of the bill is over a billion pounds. Judging by experience on spending for the Olympics this figure is likely to rise by quite a lot. At a time when there are cuts to essential services in the NHS, legal aid and right across the public sector, where will the government manage to drum up the money for implementing a misguided and ludicrous piece of legislation – which looks to only benefit the security industry itself.

While the security industry may prove lucrative for the government, the harm that this bill will cause to the public greatly overrides any government-business relations. Such an outright invasion of individuals’ privacy and the breach of personal freedoms and basic human rights cannot be justified by the government in any way whether it is business-motivated or not.

Analysing internet use can paint a very intimate picture of someone’s private life such as their health, financial situation and their personal relationships. It is not only an extreme breach of a person’s privacy but it is also completely unnecessary. Most of those affected will be innocent members of the public who may be unaware of the full extent of the bill and who do not know how to encrypt websites. Furthermore, the criminals that the government is referring to, can easily bypass the surveillance measures, thus making them even more difficult to catch.

While the government insists it will not read the data, it claims that it must have access to it for the purpose of catching criminals. Charles Farr – the head of the Home Office’s of security and counter-terrorism office, was extremely defensive when questioned about the bill and merely stated “trust us, we know”. On the contrary, it appears that any sensible person with expertise in the field of internet security would know that the proposals in the bill make very little practical or financial sense. Therefore trusting the government to “know what it’s doing” seems more and more naive on this issue.

It appears that this is just one of several bills the government is putting forward which seeks to take away fundamental personal freedoms and infringe basic human rights. Only on Sunday, Theresa May criticised judges for “not qualifying” Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and being too lenient on criminals who use Art.8 to remain in the UK (even though only 2% of foreign nationals facing deportation after criminal proceedings successfully apply Art.8 to remain in the UK). These recent policies proposed by the government are particularly worrying as they may have severe consequences for basic human rights in the UK.

The government has taken the line that this is an effective way of catching the usual bogeymen – terrorists and paedophiles. What they are still failing to consider, is that the system is relatively easy to bypass and simply requires the use of encrypted pages – in simple terms this means that websites using “https” rather than “http” cannot be tracked.

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