The British government will be able to monitor phone calls, emails, texts and website visits of online users within the UK via one of its intelligence agencies under a new legislation set to be announced soon. The Interior Ministry statement said on Sunday the measures taken are necessary to help tackle crime and terrorist attacks.
Currently, British intelligence services monitor calls and e-mails of specific individuals who may be under investigation after obtaining ministerial approval, but expanding the surveillance to all citizens is bound to enrage civil liberties campaigners.
“It is vital that police and security services are able to obtain communications data in certain circumstances to investigate serious crime and terrorism and to protect the public,” a Home Office spokesman said.
A similar law was attempted, and subsequently abandoned, in 2006 by the Labour party when it came under fierce opposition.
The Sunday Times newspaper, which first reported the story, said some details of the proposals were given to members of the Britain’s Internet Service Providers’ Association last month.
“As set out in the Strategic Defence and Security Review we will legislate as soon as parliamentary time allows to ensure that the use of communications data is compatible with the government’s approach to civil liberties,” the Home Office spokesman said.
As the statement was issued on the 1st of April, many people considered it as an April Fools Day joke. However, it does not seem that way as many politicians and civil liberties group have criticised the move.
The proposed law has drawn some strong criticism from within the ruling Conservative Party, labelled as an invasion of privacy and personal rights.
“What the government hasn’t explained is precisely why they intend to eavesdrop on all of us without even going to a judge for a warrant, which is what always used to happen,” Member of Parliament David Davis told BBC News.
“It is an unnecessary extension of the ability of the state to snoop on ordinary people,” he said
“The real April Fool is that Tory said something sane,” Joanna Gulligan, from Surrey told Arabian Gazette. “We cannot walk on the streets without a number of CCTV’s looking at us. This announcement doesn’t seem like a fools’ joke to me. It’s real!”
Glimmer of hope
However, according to many civil liberties group there is still some glimmer of hope which comes in form of the Queen’s Speech which would be made in May. Rumors are that the new law might be announced by the Queen during his address to the nation in which she would disapprove the GCHQ (British secret service) accessing the content of emails, calls or messages without a judge’s warrant.
However it would enable intelligence officers to identify who an individual or group is in contact with, how often and for how long. They would also be able to see which websites someone had visited.
The proposed legislation could reflect the US Patriot Act, controversially introduced within weeks after 11 September attacks in 2001, to expand the Federal government’s authority to monitor communications of its citizens.
MP Davis thinks this has got nothing to do with the interest of the public. He added that it would make it easier for the government ‘to eavesdrop on vast numbers of people.”
“What this is talking about doing is not focusing on terrorists or criminals, it’s absolutely everybody’s emails, phone calls, web access…” he told the BBC.
“All that’s got to be recorded for two years and the government will be able to get at it with no by your leave from anybody.”
He emphasised that until now anyone wishing to monitor communications had been required by law to gain permission from a magistrate. “You shouldn’t go beyond that in a decent civilised society, but that’s what’s being proposed,” the MP lamented.
Many critics of the government’s foreign and internal policies have come out strongly against the proposed measures.
“Under the guise of protecting the citizens from terrorists, or pedophiles in countries like the United States, the UK, Australia there’s been a huge number of privacy invading laws,” professor of political science based in UCLA, California, told Arabian Gazette. “Having rotten eggs in our backyard, we go point fingers at China and Iran.”
To undertake an operation of this scale the government would have to employ thousands of people who would sift through enormous amounts of emails, phone conversations etc. on a regular basis, which would cost millions of tax payers’ money. The Sunday Times quoted an industry official who warned that it would be “expensive, intrusive and a nightmare to run legally.”
“I would be paying the government to peep into my conversations?” a school teacher from Manchester told Arabian Gazette on condition of anonymity. “This is preposterous! Who in the right mind would pay to have their laundry seen by the whole world? I am going to write a letter to Prime Minister.”
Nick Pickles, director of the Big Brother Watch campaign group, called the move “an unprecedented step that will see Britain adopt the same kind of surveillance seen in China and Iran.”
“This is an absolute attack on privacy online and it is far from clear this will actually improve public safety, while adding significant costs to Internet businesses. This is more ambitious than anything that has been done before. It is a pretty drastic step in a democracy,” Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty told the BBC.
Some dissident Internet experts and hackers said they are not surprised by the new move and insist it already exists illegally.
“Don’t you guys know this thing already exists?” James O’Toole, a software engineer based in Central London, told Arabian Gazette over the phone. “It’s called Echelon and it has been monitoring radio transmissions, telephones, faxes and Internet traffic from the very beginning.”
Somehow not everyone seems to be opposed to the idea. An elderly couple living in Manchester told us that they welcome the move. “The world in not a safe place. The duty of the government is to keep its people safe, if it has to peep into few emails and conversations so be it. Why would anyone worry if they had nothing to hide?”
Adam Northinker, a post graduate student at the University of Los Angeles told Arabian Gazette, there is more this than that meets the eye.
“Democracy is for the people, of the people and by the people. So people are the most important factor and protecting them and their freedom is vital. However, the question is not whether a person’s freedom should be restricted, but how much it should be restricted. A balance needs to be maintained between protecting individual freedom and protecting the society as a whole. Too far one way is anarchy and the other is an Orwellian state,” the young student opined.
Source: BBC, Reuters