British authorities on Thursday unveiled an ambitious plan to log details about every Web visit, email, phone call or text message in the U.K. – and in a sharply-worded editorial the nation’s top law enforcement official accused those worried about the surveillance program of being either criminals or conspiracy theorists.
The government insists it’s not after content. It promises not to read the body of emails or eavesdrop on phone calls without a warrant. But the surveillance proposed in the government’s 118-page draft bill would provide authorities a remarkably rich picture of their citizens’ day-to-day lives, tracking nearly everything they do online, over the phone, or even through the post.
All that data would be kept for up to a year – ready for browsing whenever anyone in authority wanted it. In some cases, the bill envisages monitoring the information in real time.
Home Office Secretary Theresa May said in an editorial published ahead of the bill’s unveiling that only evil-doers should be frightened.
“Our proposals are sensible and limited,” she wrote in The Sun, the country’s top-selling daily. “They will give the police and some other agencies access to data about online communications to tackle crime, exactly as they do now with mobile phone calls and texts. Unless you are a criminal, then you’ve nothing to worry about from this new law.”
Yet plenty of people were worried, including a senior lawmaker from May’s governing Conservative Party.
“This is a huge amount of information, very intrusive to collect on people,” David Davis, one of the proposal’s most outspoken critics, told BBC radio. “It’s not content, but it’s incredibly intrusive.”
Human rights defenders were aghast. Privacy group Big Brother Watch said the proposal risked turning Britain into a “nation of suspects.” Civil rights organization Liberty said the law would mean the “indiscriminate stockpiling of private data.”
Authorities and civil libertarians have been debating the plan for weeks, but Thursday marked the first time that the government itemized exactly what kinds of activity it wanted to track.
The list is long.
The bill would force providers – companies such as the BT Group PLC or Virgin Media Inc. – to log where emails, tweets, Skype calls and other messages were sent from, who was sending them, who they were sent to, and how large they were. Details of file transfers, phone calls, text messages and instant conversations, such as those carried over BlackBerry Messenger, would also be recorded.
The bill demands that providers collect IP addresses, details of customers’ electronic hardware, and subscriber information, including names, addresses, and payment information.
What May didn’t mention in her editorial – and the Home Office left off its press release – was that the government also is seeking to keep logs of citizens’ Internet history, giving officials access to the browsing habits of roughly 60 million people – including sensitive visits to medical, dating, or pornography websites.
Prefer to send mail the old-fashioned way? That would be monitored, too. Address details and other markers printed onto envelopes would be copied; parcel tracking information would be logged as well.
Officials say they need all that information to stay on top of a rapidly-changing technological landscape. Britain’s online child protection agency said Thursday it was missing out on a quarter of the traffic used by child pornography networks. In an editorial in the Times of London entitled “Trust me, I need to know about your emails,” Scotland Yard chief Bernard Hogan-Howe said that the collection of communications data played a role in 95 percent of serious organized crime operations.
The measure remains a draft bill, which means it’s subject to change before it is presented to Parliament.
In a nod to controversy surrounding the bill, the government has taken the unusual step of submitting it for comment to two parallel legislative bodies: A joint legislative committee composed of members of Britain’s House of Lords and the House of Commons as well as Parliament’s intelligence committee.
In a statement to fellow lawmakers, May struck a measured tone, saying she recognized “that these proposals raise important issues around personal privacy” but that the law would be balanced.
She was less measured in The Sun, where she dismissed worries that the bill would stomp on free expression as “ridiculous claims” dreamed up by “conspiracy theorists.”
“Without changing the law the only freedom we would protect is that of criminals, terrorists and pedophiles,” she said.
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