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Wednesday, 23 July 2014

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Should the Government be allowed to snoop on what we do online?

It could be a scene from some nightmarish sci-fi future: Thousands of faceless government orderlies in open plan office cubicles, each monitoring little screens, checking on what internet sites we visit and the messages we send.

Stuart Hyde photo
Stuart Hyde

Or it could be the first line of defence in the ever-shifting battle against terrorism.

The Government plans to give police and security services power to monitor the email traffic and internet use of every person in Britain.

Under legislation in next month’s Queen’s Speech, law enforcement agencies will gain extra powers to access information about contacts through Skype and social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

Internet companies could also be told to install hardware allowing GCHQ to examine any phone calls, text messages emails and websites accessed, without a warrant.

An EU directive in 2009 ordered internet service providers to keep details of web access, email and internet phone calls of users for 12 months.

Content of the calls is not kept, but the sender, recipient, time of communication and geographical location does have to be recorded.

As well as helping to combat the threat of terrorism, Home Secretary Theresa May has said the new measures could also help catch killers and paedophiles.

The last Labour government tried to impose something similar in 2009, but failed following an outcry by civil liberties groups and the Conservative and Liberal opposition.

The new plans have been criticised for running counter to Tory and Liberal Democrat pre-election opposition to the “Big Brother” scheme.

Many coalition MPs have demanded a rethink on the grounds that it will be a major invasion of privacy and will lead to further surveillance of society.

Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat president and MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale said earlier this week: “We didn’t scrap identity cards to back creeping surveillance by other means. The state must not be able to trace citizens at will.”

Internet security expert Tony Wilson believes such a move by the government could drive many web users ‘underground’

He understands the reasons behind the plans, but warns that it could be counter-productive and fears it will spark people into using proxy servers to get access to the internet – servers that disguise the user and that are difficult to trace.

“Once upon a time it was telephones that were the main means of communication and when that was computerised, you could work out who had spoken to whom and for how long and the police found that useful,” he says.

“The police want those powers for the internet because we are not speaking on the phone as much, we are transmitting our thoughts on the internet.”

The worrying thing, says the managing director of Aspatria-based information security company Indelible Data, is that the police would be looking at content, rather than traffic.

“To get to that level of intrusiveness is concerning, does that mean that there will be a steady creep, creep, allowing the Government to block access to certain sites which would be censorship,” he says.

“We are effectively having a sniffer on the internet, sniffing content.

“It would make it less secure, rather than more secure and lead to a kind of arms race.

“The criminals would set up a proxy server and the authorities would try to crack it, then someone would set up a bigger and better proxy.”

These servers could be used to gather vital information from their users which could lead to people’s identities being stolen and their various online accounts being hacked into by organised crime syndicates or terrorists.

“Large scale and organised criminals will be able to evade the police, it will be the smaller criminals who get caught,” cautions Mr Wilson.

“Monitoring will make people want to do a dodgy thing, using something dodgy, made by dodgy people.

Les Floyd, blogger and prominent tweeter from Corby Hill, near Carlisle, agrees and can only see problems caused by monitoring.

“It will force people to use proxy servers and onto the Darknet which is totally anonymous. It is underground which makes it harder to police.

“The main thrust of this scheme is to track down terrorists and organised criminals, but it seems ridiculous and absurd to monitor everyone.

“It is a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

“It is like Big Brother in George Orwell’s 1984, they had television in the corner of their room watching everything they did.

“Most people use the internet and mobile phones to live their lives, not to plot evil schemes.

“People have their lives stored on computers, all sorts of contacts, their preferences, what they like to buy, what they like to watch on TV...

“Facebook has been harvesting that information already, but giving permissions to a government, to watch your every move does not feel right.”

But Cumbria’s chief constable insists any new regulations will not be as invasive as feared. “There has to be a balance between what the state and police agencies need to protect society and the right people have to their privacy,” says Stuart Hyde, a keen blogger and user of the social network site Twitter.

“There is no question of the police having carte blanche powers and for the police to go wandering through people’s emails willy nilly.

“The whole idea of the consultation period is to set the parameters for this.

“The police have never called for completely unrestricted access to everything.

“Everyone everyday creates a mass of information online and we would never have enough people to be able to sift through it all.”

He understands how people fear the move by the Government will affect their privacy and civil liberties.

But he counters that such worries are unfounded: “As well as being Chief Constable, I am also a citizen and I like to know we are not being snooped on and spied on.

“We don’t want to be a police organisation that can trample over people’s rights.”

Former Special Branch detective Greg Kelly says the changes are needed so that the security forces can keep pace with the increased sophistication of criminals and terrorists.

“As technology advances, at an alarming rate, so does the knowledge of terrorists and paedophiles and serious and organised criminals who exploit it,” he explains.

“What the Government is trying to do is catch up with that advance in technology by updating the legislation to protect the British public and the economic well-being of the UK.”

After 15 years in the Cumbria police force, 13 in Special Branch, he left to run Ultimate Security and Investigation based in Kingstown industrial estate, Carlisle.

Like Mr Hyde, he also believes privacy fears will prove to be unfounded.

“As a Special Branch officer you are involved in intelligence gathering in all its forms, involving serious and organised crime and prevention of terrorism,” he explains.

“The interception of Communications Act governs what people cannot do.

“People generally cannot intercept your mail, phone calls, text messages or emails.

“When the true proposals come out and the public sees how stringent the controls are, the public will have more faith in the plans.

“A sector of the public will always be paranoid.

“To say it is invading our privacy is alarmist.

“There will be sufficient controls in place to make this proposed legislation a sensible approach in modern society.”

In 2000, the Government introduced The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act which set out how and when intelligence agencies, police forces and government agencies could gather intelligence from the internet by interception and the rules governing that.

But Mr Kelly says that now needs updating.

“They have the powers to look historically at what people have viewed on the internet and what they have sent by email.

“People will use technology to commit offences and dispose of it immediately because they know the police are going to look for it, so it is necessary to access these things in real time.

“What this new legislation is aiming towards is looking at what you are doing in real time.

“It is a step-up from what they are doing now. They are looking at intercepting your live communications.

“They can do it with telephone taps, but they want to extend it to emails and the internet.

“But they have to go through this whole process of justifying what they have to do, it won’t be a blanket permission to pick on anyone.

“It won’t be a case of someone going into work and saying’ what can I do tonight, I’ll just look at someone’s emails.’

“They will have to be in possession of valuable information pointing to an individual and a valid reason to justify the monitoring.

“There will be safeguards in place to make sure they don’t access everyone’s emails on an ad hoc basis.”

Mr Floyd adds: “There should be a legal structure that allows authorities to check on terrorist activity, but not to check people on a whim, otherwise it could end up being used for surveillance for petty things by councils such as dog poo and bins.

“It smacks of hypocrisy that the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives opposed this last time and now it has just appeared without any process or warning.

“There are so few terrorists, I suppose it helps to find a needle in a haystack, but at the expense of our liberty.

“There should be an element of privacy.

“There are already law allowing security services to trace people’s calls and monitor their internet use, maybe they just need to speed up that process of granting warrants.

“The Government has to be on its guard, but there are safeguards in place already.”

Have your say

well suppose if your doing nothing wrong theres nothing wrong with that.

Posted by G.TAYLOR on 20 April 2012 at 16:39

They that can give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety. - Benjamin Franklin

This is bad it gives the government access to this forever and it builds a foundation to expand upon more invasive monitoring. I don't trust them with this access how long before there is a government that decides they don't like the thoughts you transmitted? The Home Office website was taken down just this weekend as an example of their poor IT record. It also sets a precedent to other countries to do the same who could use this technology in much more alarming ways, imagine if countries like Syria had this technology rather than just shutting the internet down. We can't go preaching about other countries censoring the internet when we are heading that direction. Any terrorists will most likely by pass such measures by proxy, Tor, encryption or other means.

Posted by Niall on 9 April 2012 at 11:31

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