Tag Archives: Data Protection

The big snooping debate

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.”

An eye on data, governments increase Google requests for information

The internet is, without a question of a doubt, a vital part of most people’s existence, from people working in forensics, to those involved in ethical hacking and cyber security professionals who keep on top of threats and/or the latest security measures against such activities.

And Google is, perhaps, the dominant player in this virtual arena, at least from a purely search point of view – the dominant search engine by a long shot. That’s putting it lightly, it is, in any case, a master in other areas, like statistical analysis (Google Analytics); social media, and relevant to this post, in the art of data collection.

The American multinational corporation, which was founded by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, recently released its biannual transparency report, which it does, and I quote, to “ensure that we maximise transparency around the flow of information related to our tools and services”.

The most fascinating thing about this report is that government requests, from the UK to the US to China and all the rest – for Google to pass on data is increasing. With regards to the UK, the tech organisation reported a massive 71 per cent rise in content removal requests from the British government and its police force. The reason for moving such information is down to national security issues, a bid to preserve information security.

A Home Office spokesman explained the government’s action as a response to online extremists or hate content, which it takes “very seriously”.

“Where unlawful content is hosted in the United Kingdom, the police have the power to seek its removal and where hosted overseas, we work closely with our international partners to effect its removal,” the spokesman said.

In response, Google said that it had had fully or partially complied with 82 per cent of these requests.

It’s an intriguing insight into the ‘hidden backroom’ conversations going on all the time between Google and various governments, in what is a very sensitive area. We value information security and risk management as much as any other organisation, but we have to be careful that such actions don’t filter into unjustified censorship.

That’s why Google’s transparency report is such a good thing – it lets the world see what’s going on and what governments are doing. Accountability, transparency and, of course, maintaining high levels of information security with sensitive and private data is inherently important after all.