Internet snooping plans will 'inevitably' go wrong

Apr 3, 2012

Government plans to track email and phone usage under fire from Tory MPs and ‘snooping watchdog'

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THE COALITION'S proposal to monitor internet use is under fire from all sides this morning. Conservative MPs, Lib Dems and even the government's own 'snooping watchdog' have all weighed in with concerns over civil liberties, spiralling costs and the potential for fraud.
According to documents passed to Conservative MP Dominic Raab under a Freedom of Information request, the Information Commissioner has grave concerns over the cost of the plans and the likelihood of innocent people being identified mistakenly as terrorists. The report says the case for retaining internet usage data has yet to be made and states that it is "inevitable" that something will go wrong.
Exactly what the government is proposing to include in the legislation - which will be announced in the Queen's Speech next month - is unclear.

The indications are that internet service providers will have to install hardware to enable the tracking of internet usage. The GCHQ monitoring agency will then be allowed to access data including the sender, recipient, time and location of emails and internet phone communication such as Skype calls. Access will be in "real time" and "on demand". However, the content of communications will only be accessible with a warrant.   
The documents, seen by the Daily Mail, are from 2010, when the coalition first indicated it might revive the previous Labour govermment's stalled plans to create a database of internet and phone communications. They show the Information Commissioner was in no doubt as to the potential for harm.

"There needs to be some recognition that this additional data will be a honeypot as it will reveal the browsing habits and communications of celebrities, politicians etc.
"Has a government minister been using web applications to communicate on Adultfriendfinder? Just how long has that celebrity been communicating with his alleged mistress on Skype?
"There needs to be a clear means of repair when something goes wrong, which it inevitably will at some point."
A spokesman for the Information Commissioner's Office said the agency is still concerned about the potential for misuse of new powers, telling The Independent: "The Information Commissioner's role in this Home Office project, both under this government and the last, has been to press for the necessary limitations and safeguards to mitigate the impact on citizens' privacy."
The cost of the project is also coming under scrutiny at a time of austerity. The Home Office estimates that the programme will cost £2 billion over its first ten years and then £200 million per year afterwards.
Given the terrible record of government IT schemes – the cost of an NHS computer system rose from £6bn to over £12bn before being scrapped last year – it is possible this is an underestimate.  
Meanwhile Dominic Raab warned of the potential for "massive fraud because the technology is flawed and there aren't proper safeguards in place".
Referring to the Prime Minister's opposition to the previous Labour government's plans for ID cards, Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg suggested to The Times that there was a whiff of hypocrisy about the new proposals: "The Government ought to remember why it favoured liberty in opposition. The powers it creates may in future be used by less benevolent administrations."
Tim Farron, president of the Lib Dems, took to Twitter to denounce the plans: "We didn't scrap ID cards to back creeping surveillance by other means. [The] state mustn't be able to trace citizens at will."
But security minister James Brokenshire took to the airwaves to defend the plans – and deny any similarity to Labour's plans for a central database. "We absolutely get the need for appropriate safeguards and for appropriate protections to be put in place," he told the BBC.
"What this is not is the previous government's plan of creating some sort of great big Big Brother database."

Meanwhile, technology writer Jack Schofield has shown just how futile are government attempts to monitor our web use with an article in The Guardian titled ‘How to hide emails from government snooping'.
After explaining how easy it is to hide your internet records from the authorities if you so wish, he concludes: "Government attempts to snoop can help to create an internet culture where snooping becomes impossible."

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