Who Guards the Guardians?

Is a proposed increase in surveillance by the state a necessary security precaution or an unnecessary breach of civil liberty? Many would argue that the UK has one of the most liberal societies in the world and that the challenge is to keep it that way.

The government has proposed, in the draft Communications Data Bill, that information about internet use should be kept by internet service providers (such as British Telecom, Virgin and Sky) for a year to allow the police, security services and HM Revenue & Customs to have access to it. Such recorded information will include activity on social network sites, webmail, internet phone calls, online gaming and websites visited, although not the content of the website’s pages. The Home secretary has stated, on the BBC, that: “It’s not about the content, its not about reading people’s emails or listening to their telephone calls” and “This is purely about the who, when and where made these communications and it’s about ensuring we catch criminals and stop terrorists”. So it is argued that such intrusion is necessary to combat organised crime, terrorism and paedophile rings.

Most will agree that state agencies, consisting of highly skilled and dedicated professionals, are doing their laudable best to fight criminal networks both here and abroad in increasingly difficult circumstances and that they need every available technological advance in order to do this. No doubt the extent of such planned surveillance will be much debated. Certainly, some interesting questions are being asked. For instance, how would e-commerce be affected by the state cracking secure forms of internet encryption? In the words of a senior Tory Member of Parliament, will the new rules “only catch the innocent and incompetent”? What would be the consequences of a future less democratic government using such surveillance to compromise the freedoms of its citizens and to control their dissent? What is the value (or price?) of personal privacy?