Tag Archives: big brother

Criticism for ‘UK database’ plan

By Jane Wakefield 
Technology reporter, BBC News

Newspaper headline about data losses

The government has made headlines for data failures

Plans for a super-database containing the details of all phone calls and e-mails sent in the UK have been heavily criticised by experts.

The government is considering the changes as part of its ongoing fight against serious crime and terrorism.

Assistant Information Commissioner Jonathan Bamford has warned that the UK could be “sleepwalking into a surveillance society”.

Others have questioned how such a database could be made secure.

Public confidence

“While the public is “sleepwalking” into a surveillance society, the government seems to have its eyes wide open although, unfortunately, to everything except security,” said Jamie Cowper, data protection expert at data protection firm PGP Corporation.

“The bottom line is – information of this nature should only be held if – and only if – it can be demonstrated that an appropriate system of checks and balances is in place and the security of the information being stored is of paramount concern,” he added.

Public confidence in the governments’ ability to look after data has been dented in recent months with high profile failures, including the loss of a CD carrying all the personal details of every child benefit claimant.

The latest plans being mulled by the Home Office will form part of the proposed Communications Bill, which is due to be considered by MPs later this year.

It is, said a Home Office spokesman, crucial “to ensure that public authorities have access to communications data essential for counter-terrorism and investigation of crime purposes.”


 The more people who have access to it the more risks there would be 
Chris Mayers, Citrix Systems

It would extend the powers of RIPA (the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act) which currently allows hundreds of government agencies access to communications data.

Some believe such legislation, which requires government authorities to request information from communication providers, is more than adequate for law enforcement purposes.

“The fight against terrorism doesn’t require a centralised database,” said Chris Mayers, chief security architect at Citrix Systems, an applications delivery firm.

“Such a database would face threats from both outside and inside. The more people who have access to it the more risks there would be,” he said.

Big Brother

The Internet Service Providers’ Association said it was seeking more information about the proposals.

“In particular we want to know more about the Government’s intentions regarding “modifying the procedures for acquiring communications data,” said a spokesman.

In the run-up to RIPA being approved by parliament, human rights campaigner Privacy International argued that such an act would be a dangerous first step towards a “Big Brother” society.

According to Gus Hosein, a senior fellow at Privacy International, the latest proposals could be even more controversial.

“The idea that ISPs need to collect data and send it en masse to central government is, without doubt, illegal,” he said.

Phonecalls and texts to be logged by Government

Information about all landline and mobile phone calls made in the UK must be logged and stored for a year under new laws.Data about calls made and received will also be available to 652 public bodies, including the police and councils.

The Home Office said the content of calls and texts would not be read and insisted the move was vital to tackle serious crime and terrorism.

But critics said it was another example of Britain’s “surveillance society”.

The new law, under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, was signed off by Home Secretary Jacqui Smith in July.

It requires phone companies to log data on every call or text made to and from every phone in Britain.

‘Different uses’

Since 2004, companies have voluntarily provided data, where available, if it was requested, but now they will required by law to retain it for a year.

Minister for Security and Counter-terrorism Tony McNulty told BBC Radio 4 that the data could provide three levels of information, the simplest being about the phone’s owner.

“Say some old lady has got difficulties with someone who’s repaired the gas in her house and has a mobile phone for somebody who’s clearly dodgy,” Mr McNulty said.

“The local authorities can just get the subscriber information next to that number.

“The second level of data is not simply the subscriber, but also the calls made by that phone.

“And the third level which is purely for the security forces, police, etc, is not just the subscriber information and the calls made, but also the calls coming in and location data – where the calls are made from.”

Personal ‘profile’

A person’s location can be pinpointed to within a few feet by identifying the mobile phone mast used to transmit their call.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of civil rights group Liberty, said people were more concerned than ever about their personal privacy, especially how many bodies had access to their phone records.

“There are actually a very broad range of purposes for which this information about who we’ve been phoning and when can be revealed,” Ms Chakrabarti said.

“It includes, for example, the Gaming Board, the Food Standards Authority and every district and county council in the country.”

She said requests for information would not be limited to those concerning serious crime and national security.

“We’re talking about a profile that can be built of your personal relationships on the basis of who you’ve been speaking to and when.”

Public consulted

Mr McNulty said local councils would only have access to data on “a legitimate and proportional basis”.

“(To say) that all of a sudden anyone and everyone’s information is available, that all these authorities somehow have the right to go fishing and snooping, simply isn’t the case,” he added.

Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: “Once again this government has been caught red-handed creating new surveillance state powers with no meaningful public or parliamentary debate.

The Home Office said the plans had been through a public consultation and said a senior police officer would have to approve any request for phone data.

Councils would only be able to use the powers to “prevent and detect crime – not for the collection of taxes”, the spokesman added.

The new law brings Britain in line with an EU directive on the retention of phone data.

Who’s watching the watchers?

Not even MPs are exempt from the surveillance state they have created, notes regular columnist Bill Thompson. 

CCTV camera near Houses of Parliament, AP

MP’s are worried about coming under the same scrutiny as most citizens

Members of the British Parliament have been shocked to discover that one of their number was bugged by the secret service, violating the forty-year old “Wilson doctrine” that offers MPs immunity from the sort of snooping they are happy for the rest of us to be subject to.Two conversations between Tooting MP Sadiq Khan and his constituent and childhood friend Babar Ahmad were apparently recorded in the prison where Mr Ahmad is being held.

He is on remand while awaiting deportation to the United States on charges relating to his support for terrorism. Mr Ahmad faces no charges in the UK.

The real problem for MPs, of course, is not that they will be specifically targetted for surveillance but that they will inevitably be caught up in operations against other people.

This doesn’t seem to be the case here, as special arrangements were made to seat the two men at a “talking table” in the prison visiting area, but many MPs must have found themselves chatting to someone who was being constantly watched.


Bill Thompson
 Perhaps it’s time to teach our elected representatives how to use the latest encryption and anonymising tools so that they can protect themselves from the surveillance state they have created? 
Bill Thompson

And while it might be nice to think that the people at the other end would think “hold on, that person is an elected Member of Parliament – turn off the recording”, it’s also rather unrealistic. 

Just as few of us believe that employers really do stop reading employee e-mails when they realise that they are personal, although that is what the law would require, it is hard to imagine that the secret service turn off their microphones when an MP enters the room.

The problem is not, however, restricted to specially installed listening devices, and MPs concerned about bugs might want to look again at the laws which control how online communications of all kinds are monitored, stored and analysed, since this affects them as much as it affects the rest of us.

Phone companies and internet service providers keep records of all text messages, phone calls, e-mails, IP addresses, websites visited, and times logged on to instant messaging services, collectively known as “traffic data”.

The content of e-mails and chats or details of web searches are not stored, so it takes a warrant to read someone’s e-mail, monitor their online chats or install bugging software on their laptop so you can listen in to their Skype conversations.

But the information that is retained is enough to know who you are calling or e-mailing, when you’re chatting and which websites you are visiting, the sort of thing that most of us would consider private and expect to be kept confidential.


Harold Wilson, Getty

The immunity for MPs dates from the days of Labour PM Harold Wilson

Apart from website information, which the UK only asks net providers to keep for four days, most of this data is routinely retained for six months. Once the European Directive on Data Retention is fully written into national laws it could be kept for two years. 

According to the Interception of Communications Commissioner, Sir Paul Kennedy, over 250,000 requests for access to this data were made in the first nine months of 2007, an appalling extension of the state’s powers of surveillance, and one that few of us are aware of.

And nearly 800 separate bodies can ask to see some or all of it.

Apart from the police and secret services the Food Standards Agency, health service trusts and even the Post Office can ask to see who you’ve been exchanging e-mails with.

The information gathered will inevitably include details of correspondence between MPs and their constituents, lists of websites visited from MPs offices and home computers and details of which instant messaging services they have been accessing.


Hard drive, Eyewire

Currently net service firms retain data for about six months

And I doubt that there is a filter for “parliament.uk” in the analysis tools so that none of this data is ever passed to the secret services, the police or any of the other government agencies allowed to ask for it, so MPs are probably under routine surveillance whether they like it or not. 

At least it puts them in the same bag as the rest of us. Journalists don’t even have the fig-leaf of protection against being watched that MPs have claimed for themselves, and I tell every one of my students at City University to assume that all of their e-mails, phone calls and online chats could be read by the authorities.

Most of the time, of course, what we’re doing is not of sufficient interest to justify the effort of monitoring a journalist – or even an MP – but being aware of the possibility is vitally important in case a story suddenly becomes high-profile. The same would apply if a constituent becomes “of interest” to the authorities.

MPs might be unhappy to find out that their supposedly confidential chats to constituents are being listened in to by MI5, but surely they should be just as worried that the Food Standards Agency can find out that the owner of the dodgy takeaway in the local high street has been sending them e-mails?

Perhaps it’s time to teach our elected representatives how to use the latest encryption and anonymising tools so that they can protect themselves from the surveillance state they have created?

Or perhaps they would like to do us all a service and dismantle it. 


Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet.

Should the innocent have to hide too?

Last year I saw a film called Taking Liberties and came away feeling that really stuck in my throat that was  a strange mixture of rage, anger and sadness. I’d say the sadness is actually the strongest emotion that I feet overall.
This film was not ‘entertainment’, infact towards the end I was starting to feel a little overwhelmed by it all, but it kept me gripped because, unlike most cinema flicks, this is real, this is happening, this is the country I live inright now! As I watched in disbelief I was transformed through anger to rage, through the whole spectrum of emotions by the actions and words of those who we once considered to the be the Servants of Society: our politicians and our police.


One by one many of the liberties that we as UK subjects have taken for granted were shown to be no longer reliable. Right to protest, Free speech, Privacy, Inocent until proven guilty, Extradition and Torture were all highlighted and real cases were examined.

The premise of this film is that we are turning in to a police state, if a rather badly organsied one. That somehow police and politicians had become our masters and we their servants. On it’s own that statement can be easily scoffed at. But the evidence was there on screen to see, and it was unnerving and slightly sinister. Using a mixture of police footage and protestor’s footage, a rather peculiar picture began to emerge: police with unprecedented powers unable to control the itch to use these powers.

It was like watching Teineman Square in minature, or a communist state in operation. The comparison to the Nazzi’s was startling, but there was no denying the similarities of method, even if the motive was slightly different.

The laws that have been passed that allow these things to go on, political will and control enacted by the police, may not be used against the innocent so much at this time. But if there comes a day when there are leaders or governments who like the taste of power too much, now there is no stopping them and we are all under suspicion.

Many refer to the erosion of our liberties, and what a great metaphor. Like a cliff face, once the process of erosion starts, it is very difficult to protect further and the land becomes more vulnerable piece by piece until it is swallowed up. For good.

At two hours this film may be too much for many to take, but I really urge you to try it, see it and witness what our country really is like today. And if you think, “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” – then just tread carefully as it might just be your turn next…

What do you think? Leave your comments here.