News that the UK government is planning to grant the state new powers to monitor people’s communications has been met with a mixture of anger and confusion.
The story broke at the end of a bizarre few weeks for the ruling coalition, which managed to score a brace of spectacular own goals in reducing tax rates for the rich while increasing tax on hot food. Meanwhile, one government minister was actually encouraging people to panic buy petrol and store large quantities of it at home ahead of a potential, but by no means certain fuel lorry drivers strike.
The uncertainty over the new surveillance powers can, I think, be seen as part of this pattern. No one is quite sure why the government is doing this — or even what exactly it is they want to do. Roughly speaking, it seems to be about obliging companies to hold information on personal communications and allow government agents (from spies right down to local council workers) access at any time without a warrant.
You would think that such a controversial policy would emerge well thought out and with damned good reason. But Home Secretary Theresa May has absolutely failed to make the case, beyond muttering the usual nothing-to-fear-if-nothing-to-hide line (in itself an odd defence of increased official power from a government which has set out its stall as small-statist, even libertarian), and the utterly confusing position that previous crimes had been solved using these powers, (er, we thought they were new powers).
Writing in today’s Times, Heather Brooke points out the ease with which it is now possible to run a surveillance state through technology. Even if the UK government is sincere in its insistence that these powers will only be used to hunt criminals and terrorists, it severely undermines its power to criticise states that would use the same legislation to watch activists and dissidents. Have no doubt, this is a bad idea and Index will campaign against it should it go any further.
As so often happens with proposed web policy, there’s an element here of the technology leading the argument: it is possible to build surveillance back doors, ergo it is desirable to do so. This is not an attitude that should have any purchase with the supposed civil libertarians and conservatives that make up the government parties (indeed, the coalition agreement included a commitment to the “ending of storage of internet and email records without good reason”). But somehow here we are.