Muddle abounds in the government’s internet snooping policy proposals. Is it to catch terrorists or paedophiles? And is it an old Labour bill or something as of yet completely unwritten?
Are we heading for a Big Brother-type society as a result of these proposals though? Not really.
The proposals are not an eavesdropper’s charter; the remit is recording contact made, not communications relayed. Criminals use the Royal Mail and landline phones with the risk of being found, they should not be able to treat the internet as a clandestine communication system. Skype should be treated in the same way phone calls, email like real mail etc.
The challenge is balance. First, we need universal legal principles applied to government surveillance as a whole, rather than the fragmented situation where different internet services, mail, and mobile phones are all treated differently. Second, we need to advance the agenda of protecting our information from corporations or governments who want to appropriate it on a whim.
Any snooping capacity on communications networks is likely built in by the manufacturers. Britain is only one wired country among many. Presented with the demand from some countries for snooping capability, it is highly likely that manufacturers will make eavesdropping facilities easily accessible, leaving it to the conscience of the government in situ.
Any expansion of snooping powers will have more of an immediate effect on the courts than detectives and spooks. It takes time to expand interception capabilities (unless you merely have to turn them on). The real thrust is probably that information once considered too revelatory of surveillance techniques will soon be able to be shown in court with secrecy procedures in place. Of course, it is difficult to know the nature of information treated as leads in investigations, but not shown in court at all.
The proposals currently mooted probably do not signify a Big Brother state. Rather, they show a cavalier attitude on privacy and accountability issues. I do not believe that the government wants to institute a Stasi system, but that it lacks the imagination to pursue a radical accountability agenda, something that could take the current political stress out of taxation, too. In the absence of this, the overwhelming temptation is to hoover up more information in the hope that subsequent events will prove it right.