UK ISPs have come out in united opposition to the British government's proposed £2 billion plan to construct a massive "Big Brother" database and surveillance system that will monitor and record every email, phone call and website visit of the country's citizens, reports Martyn Warwick.
Under proposed legislation it would be the UK's hapless ISPs that would be made responsible for implementation of the Orwellian system and, in a submission to the Home Office (the UK's equivalent of a Ministry of the Interior), a coalition of the service providers have condemned it as "an unwarranted intrusion into people’s privacy". The document also accuses the government of deliberately misleading the British public about the extent to which their private communications will be monitored.
The Brown administration insists that the enormous database, that will keep surveillance on anyone in the country who uses a telephone or the Internet, is vital in the nation's "war" against terrorism. However, opposition to the plan is mounting. And it's not just the media and civil liberties organisations that are against it. Some members of the judiciary have already voiced their opposition while the Conservatives (regarded by much of the population as the Party most likely to form the next government after a general election that must take place between now and next June at the absolute latest) says the scheme is a "step too far for British society" as well as being "unworkable in practice".
In their combined submission, that has been collated by the London Internet Exchange, 330 UK ISPs (including the big beasts such as BT and Virgin) say, “We view the description of the government’s proposals as ‘maintaining’ capability [to monitor terrorist plans and organised crime] as disingenuous: the volume of data the government now proposes that we should collect and retain will be unprecedented, as is the overall level of intrusion into the privacy of citizenry."
The submission continues, “This is a purely political description that serves only to win consent by hiding the extent of the proposed extension of powers for the state.”
This coalition of the unwilling throws another hefty spoke into the wheels of the government's bloody-minded, juggernaut determination to impose the sorts of surveillance on its citizenry that would have had both Hitler and Stalin purring with pleasure.
As opposition mounts, ministers have already had to drop various proposals such as the construction of a single massive national database holding records of all e-mails, phone calls and website visits for an indefinite period. They didn't do so without a fight though. Back in April the then Home Secretary, Jaqui Smith, tried to assuage ISP's anger and concerns by promising £2 billion in taxpayers money to help finance the scheme.
Under that proposal the single giant database idea would be shelved (for now) and the ISP's and telcos provided with financial incentives to monitor and store records of all emails, phone calls and web visits by their subscribers. These records would be kept for 12 months "in the first instance" and the companies would have to make the data available "on the request" of various un-named, unidentified and unaccountable "law-enfiorcement agencies and government departments."
As part of making this push for totalitarianism seem to be a democratic exercise, Smith asked for the industry to submit its views. Her successor got them last week.
Smith herself is long gone, brought down by the MP's expenses scandal when it emerged that she was one of those with her snout deepest in the trough. She faces further investigation and a private prosecution for fraud.
During her time at the Home Office, GCHQ, the government's massive electronic surveillance and eavesdropping agency, under considerable political pressure, went so far as publicly to deny that it would spy on every email, phone call and website visit in the UK. British ISP's dismissed the claim as an a outright lie. As Juvenal wrote, "Quis custodiet ipso custodes?"
Another excerpt from the ISP's submission reads, “These new proposals suggest an intention to capture anything and everything, regardless of the communications used. We have grave misgivings about the technical feasibility of such ambition. We are not aware of any existing equipment an ISP could purchase that would enable it to fulfil a legal obligation to acquire and retain such a wide range of data as it transits across its network ... in some common cases it would be impossible in principle to obtain the information sought.”
As is usual in these and similar cases, the proposals betray a woeful ignorance on the part of the government as to how the Internet actually works. For example, no mention is made of the fact that the data may well be held on servers overseas and not on systems run by British ISPs. Nor is there acknowledgement that anyone even slightly Internet savvy will be able to cover their tracks by using proxy identities and proxy servers.
Furthermore, it is very likely that any such legislation and database would be illegal under European laws and international human rights legislation. Add to that the fact that in recent months the government has shown itself to be congenitally incapable of safeguarding information it already holds on its citizenry - sensitive, private data on more than 25 million people (that's getting on for half the UK population) has been "lost" or has otherwise "gone missing" in past months and you can see why opposition to the scheme is growing.
The London Internet Exchange says, “Given the government’s recent track record in failing to maintain the security of data collected from the general public, the public will require reassurance on this point."
In rebuttal, the Home Office has come out with this mealy-mouthed response. “We know that this is a complex and sensitive subject, with a fine balance to be made between protecting public safety and civil liberties. This is why we launched a public consultation. We have had a number of responses that we are currently considering. We will be responding in due course.”
That "due course" will be a long time. Parliament is in recess whilst MP's take a well-earned 82 day break from their exertions on the Gravy Train. And when Parliament does finally return to work in October, all it will do is clear up a few odds and ends left unfinished before its member's took their long vacation. In November a new parliamentary session starts with the traditional Queen's Speech. So the House of Commons will reconvene for a week or two and then close down again until early winter. Then it'll be Christmas and time for another four week break. They work hard our MPs.
Thankfully, by the time anything begins in earnest, it will be 2010 and we will be weeks away from marching to the polling booths to make evident our democratic intent.
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