Big Brother

I wonder if any of you remember Conservative promises to ‘reverse the rise of the surveillance state’ in the run-up to the last general election? It was all very noble, and one of the very limited number of Tory policies that I found myself agreeing with. After all, as the Tories themselves pointed out, the Labour government had all gone a bit ‘big brother’. Tory Dominic Grieve said “This Government’s approach to our personal privacy is the worst of all worlds – intrusive, ineffective and enormously expensive.” It seemed that should the Tories gain power, they would do something about it. A small consolation.

Needless to say, given how pretty much everything else promised by the coalition parties before the election turned out, I don’t think anyone was entirely surprised this Sunday when the government announced plans to monitor emails, Web sites visited, phone calls, and pretty much everything else you might choose to do on the Internet or your phone.

I cannot emphasise strongly enough just how illiberal this is, and just how much it should anger you. The proposed changes would allow the government “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.” Sure, they might not be able to actually read your emails or texts without a warrant, but how important is that, really? I’m sure there are many people who might not want their browsing history to be public – the text of the pages themselves is rather secondary. And these things are available without a warrant, i.e. the government – any bit of it – will be able to just have a look at what you’re up to without having to actually suspect you of anything at all or justify why they’re doing it.

Now, I’m sure we’ll be told there will be ‘safeguards’ and ‘controls’, but isn’t that what the requirement for warrants are? If the government really thinks you might be a terrorist I don’t think they’re going to have a problem obtaining a warrant. No, these laws aren’t necessary to fight terrorism. We already have some of the most draconian ‘anti-terror’ laws in Europe – the UK is the only European nation to have suspended article five of the European Convention on Human Rights which prevents arbitrary detention without trial, after all. And let’s face it, if the government can get away with locking random people up at-will without any evidence of wrong-doing, they’re not going to worry too much about keeping tabs on who we’re all talking to, especially when they won’t have to pay to do it (we all will, as ISPs and phone companies will have to collect the data for them).

The more technologically aware might think ’that’s fine, I’ll just encrypt everything’. Well good luck with that. If you fail to hand-over decryption keys to the government when asked you’ll end-up with up to five years in prison, thanks to Part 3, Section 49 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. Remember, you don’t have to be under suspicion of anything at all. While RIPA isn’t new, the ability of the state to snoop on your Internet traffic at will, without reason, is. When they do that and notice encrypted traffic, what then? Well, ‘no smoke without fire’ might think PC Plod, and ask for your encryption keys. Bad luck if you’ve forgotten them – RIPA means it’s your job not to, or it’s five years in prison for you!

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. Why should we even worry about encryption keys, which Web sites we visit, who we’ve phoned, or any of this? It is no business of the state. I feel as strongly about this as I do about people who think it’s weird not to tell police my name or what I’m doing (note: don’t be rude, just politely refuse to tell them). If I am not committing a crime then it is no business of the police who I am or what I’m doing. They are here to serve us and we are not living in a police state – yet. It is a very sad thing that there are some who think it’s reasonable that the police (or government in general) should have a right to know every aspect of our lives. These people do not deserve the liberty that they are so willing to make the rest of us give up.