After announcing that it is considering introducing a new bill that will give the GCHQ unprecedented powers to monitor people’s emails, texts, social media content, phone calls and web browsing history – in real time – the government has had to defend itself from a barrage of condemnation.
Critics of the proposed legislation, which may be included in the Queen’s speech in May, have dubbed it a “snooping bill”, claiming that it is a clandestine way of monitoring the activities of everyday people.
The government, however, has assured the public that there is nothing sinister about the bill, no echoes of an Orwellian future, there will be no centralised database storing people’s information, and all information will remain “invisible”.
“Let’s be clear, this is not about extending the reach of the state into people’s data, it’s about trying to keep up with modern technology,” explained prime minister David Cameron, attempting to assuage opponents.
“We should remember that this sort of data, used at the moment, through the proper processes, is absolutely vital in stopping serious crime and some of the most serious terrorist incidents that could kill people in our country, so it’s essential we get this right.”
Advocates of the bill have asserted that this is its focus – to protect people and curb crime whether it’s tackling cyber criminals or terrorists. Akin to a software update, the new legislation is designed to respond to the significant changes that have taken place by virtue of the digital revolution, which has, in no short way, radically transformed most aspects of society. As Mr Cameron noted, a warrant will be needed to access the private information.
Others, however, are less sanguine. Nick Pickles, director of the Big Brother Watch campaign, sees it as leading to a reality that is comparable to the kind of surveillance that is prevalent in Iran and China, two countries known for having, for example, limited press freedoms.
“This is an absolute attack on privacy online and it is far from clear this will actually improve public safety, while adding significant costs to internet businesses,” he stated. “If this was such a serious security issue why has the Home Office not ensured these powers were in place before the Olympics?”
Although details of the proposed bill have yet to be finalised, it is believed that one of the most significant aspects will be for internet service providers and mobile phone companies to keep hold of all data travelling through their respective spheres.
At present, such information is accessible by intelligence agencies, the police and other public bodies, without any external organisations signing off. If the law is to go ahead, there is a desire to see an impartial body set up to monitor requests to ensure that freedoms are being protected and not abused.
“Whoever is in government, the grand snooping ambitions of security agencies don’t change,” Isabella Sankey, director of policy at Liberty, was quoted by the government as saying.
“The coalition agreement explicitly promised to ‘end unnecessary data retention’ and restore our civil liberties. At the very least we need less secret briefing and more public consultation if this promise is to be abandoned.”