Watching Me, Watching You
13 Jan 2009

Government data retention plans will make life difficult for Britain’s investigative journalists, says Bill Thompson

The UK government’s decision to press forward with implementation of the European Union directive on data retention by communications service providers is hardly surprising given that Britain had pushed hard for its initial adoption.

From 15 March Internet service providers and telephone companies will be required to keep records of the communications of their customers. Every email sent or received, every website visited and the numbers of every call made or text exchanged will be kept for a year so that law enforcement agencies can search them during their investigations.

The records will be kept by the companies themselves, but the Home Office is also pushing forward with their Interception Modernisation Programme, aiming to have information stored in a central database to which all relevant agencies will have access.

The proposals have been criticised from all quarters. Those concerned with our freedom to go about our daily lives without state interference have long objected, but now the Daily Mail, hardly noted for its concern for civil liberties in the past, has described the plan as ‘creepy’ and ‘costly’ and claimed it is unworkable.

Even the technology sector has weighed in. A recent article by Mike Butcher, editor of the popular and important technology website Techcrunch UK, slammed them as too expensive, unworkable and likely to chill UK entrepreneurship. Butcher is even planning a public rally.

Of course one reason that Jacqui Smith thinks the plans are worth pursuing is that she has been persuaded by the IT industry that mega-databases can be built and run efficiently.
The technology boosters who have stood up at conferences and talked about supercomputers in the pocket, massive data storage and high speed networks –– and I include myself in this list –– have led politicians to believe that their fantasies of complete surveillance can be delivered, and their illiberal instincts have been allowed to flourish. Smith wants control, and we have told her that she can have it.

She probably can. It might cost a lot, but the sums involved are tiny compared to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or even the money offered to the banks to keep them afloat. It might be a complex system, but Google, Amazon and Microsoft run systems of similar scale and complexity and even manage to make money.

And the entrepreneurs will not abandon the UK marketplace, whatever they may say, because the desire to make money will overcome their reluctance to have their email records stored by the state. We cannot look to them to block the project.

But we need to stand up against the plans because even if the current proposals can be justified as a proportionate measure –– and remember that only details of sender and receiver are being stored, not the content of the messages themselves –– mission creep is inevitable.
Powers granted under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act which we were told were needed to investigate serious crime and catch terrorists have been used to determine whether parents are really living in the catchment area of a popular school, something that is not actually illegal under the act as passed.

Whatever limits are currently in place on who gets access to the stored records, once the database is there it will be used. This should worry us all but it is particularly concerning for any journalist working in the UK.

The law does not provide any special protection or privilege for us, and emails sent to or from, and will be stored along with everyone else’s.

That is going to make leak inquiries a lot easier. For example, if I write a story that embarrasses the justice secretary then it will be possible to go back through a year’s worth of my emails and texts to see if I’ve had any contact at all with potential leakers inside the department and focus investigation on them.

The ability to track criminals and conspirators on electronic networks is not, in itself, objectionable. However the discourse between the desire for control and the dangers of freedom is shaped in part by the technologies available to both sides. We want to be safe, and are willing to give up some freedoms for some security, but the tools currently on offer take far more than they can offer in return.

Instead of simply accepting that the government will get its way, or hoping that the project turns into another technical disaster and is abandoned, we should be talking to the Home Office, engaging with those members of the government who are willing to listen like Tom Watson in the Cabinet Office, and seeking to educate and inform those who, in theory at least, represent us all.

3 responses to “Watching Me, Watching You”

  1. thumbnail says:

    Another nail in the coffin of british democracy. It appears there is little we can do to stop the rabid rampaging over our rights by raging psychotics like Jacqui Smith. Perhaps a revolution is in order?

  2. Guy Herbert (General Secretary, NO2ID) says:

    Cannonball Jones, you also need to think about the ID scheme in the same context.

    Would this scoop, for example have been possible, had the reporters’ fake cv and his fingerprints had to match?

  3. I’d always been against the idea of email retention purely on the grounds of the attack on privacy and must admit that I’d never thought about it from the angle of journalistic privacy. It’s quite alarming when you get your head round it, government legislation which would hammer individual rights and at the same time hamstring anyone trying to do some behind the scenes reporting on it.