Magazine article The Spectator

Nowhere to Hide

Magazine article The Spectator

Nowhere to Hide

Article excerpt

The proposed Communications Data Bill would give the government extraordinary powers to spy on us all.

Ever since the millennium, I have wondered how long the utopian faith in the emancipatory potential of the web will last. Of course, we know the new technologies give the citizen new powers to communicate and connect. We hear this praised so loudly and so often, how could we not know? But what benefits the individual also benefits the powerful, and gives states and corporations surveillance powers the secret police forces of the 20th century could only dream of.

If you doubt me, consider how today's scandals are technologically enabled. The Telegraph 's publication of MPs' expenses would have been impossible 30 years ago. The source would have had to photocopy hundreds of thousands of pieces of paper. Even if he could do it without his colleagues noticing, he would need a truck to move them past security guards. Now he can just put them on a memory stick and walk out of the office. The Leveson inquiry released embarrassingly intimate text messages between Rebekah Brooks and David Cameron that both must have assumed were for their eyes only. Meanwhile, the Murdoch newspapers that Brooks once ran have handed the police emails and expense claims that detectives can use in evidence against stunned reporters who never imagined that electronic records of their past could return to destroy their careers.

Moore's Law holds that the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles approximately every two years. One day Moore's Law will run into the laws of physics, and the expansion will stall. Until it does, the costs of storing and retrieving data will remain trivial and what I will call Nelson's Law will apply. Fraser Nelson, editor of this journal, noticed recently that when politicians want to say something private, they invariably write notes or whisper rather than email or text. 'The delete button lies, ' the editor concluded. You can throw your mobile in a river, delete your emails or wipe your browsing history but a record of your activity survives. Readers may delight in fiddled expense claims humiliating MPs and forgotten emails allowing the cops to feel the collars of journalists. You are only flesh and blood, after all. But what if the same thing were to happen to you?

In the United States, there is bipartisan political pressure to protect the citizen from the surveillance boom. John Kerry and John McCain have co-sponsored a bill that requires all who collect information on the web to alert their customers and allow them to opt out if they don't want their privacy infringed. Beyond isolated politicians, campaign groups and academics, there is no comparable level of concern about online privacy in Britain, which is a pity because we need concern now more than ever.

The Communications Data Bill currently before Parliament is extraordinary in several respects. It is extraordinary because the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats successfully opposed introducing a similar measure when Labour was in power. On arrival in office, they stood on their heads and advocated the very surveillance powers they once denounced. It is extraordinary because the coalition can perform its U-turn without significant public protest. But the most extraordinary aspect is the sweeping nature of the bill's provisions. It would 'ensure that communications data is available to be obtained from telecommunications operators'. Ever since the coalition published it, appalled telecommunications operators have been trying to work out what that means.

Labour invited the representatives of web companies into Downing Street before it attempted to monitor the internet, a leading industry figure told me in private. Not so the coalition. Instead, witnesses to a parliamentary committee scrutinising the bill are trying to map the future of the surveillance state. No one believes the Home Office story that the bill is merely a tidying up exercise that will allow the security services to respond to technological change. …

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