Sunday, 22 April 2012
Take to the streets over government snooping plans- just don’t tweet about it first.
People should ‘protest in the streets’ over government plans to increase monitoring of mobile phone calls, emails and web usage. This isn’t a communiqué from the Workers Revolutionary Party or boat race disrupting ‘activist’ Trenton Oldfield; it’s the advice of World Wide Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee.
The proposals to increase surveillance of communications made by suspicious characters such as you and I put forward by the Home Office are set to appear in next month’s Queen’s Speech. It will still, for now, be necessary for the authorities to obtain a warrant to access the content of emails and phone calls, but they will be able to find out who an individual spoke to, how often and for how long.
This is all being done in the name of combating terrorism and organised crime, so we should all stop worrying and let the spooks get on with things. I don’t think so, there is plenty to worry about, not least, as Sir Tim points out, the failure to strike an appropriate ‘balance between respect for human beings and the powers the government is giving itself’ inherent within the proposals.
Speaking to the BBC last week Mr Berners-Lee predicted a ‘battle’ between the government on one side and the vast majority of responsible internet users on the other over access and privacy. He said, ‘we need to fall back on the principle that the government doesn’t have the right to intrude on individual people in their homes and look at what they’re doing.’
He went on to say that people should not take the freedom to use the internet for granted and should make their MPs aware of their concerns and ‘if necessary get out there in the streets waving banners.’
Prime Minister David Cameron denies that the proposals constitute a ‘snoopers charter’ and that they aim simply to help the security services ‘keep up with technology.’ Civil liberties groups, understandably, disagree with this point of view, as does former shadow Home Secretary and Tory leadership contender David Davis, who called the plans ‘an unnecessary extension of the ability of the state to snoop on ordinary citizens.’
Equally worrying are the ongoing attempts to water down the power of the public to access information the government and other bodies would like kept quiet through the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act. The poster boy for this campaign is former Home Secretary Jack Straw, who, along with his good friend Tony Blair, has some awkward questions to answer about the rendition of terror suspects he would quite like the public to be prevented from asking in the first place.
New Labour have very little to be proud of, but introducing FOI is one of the few occasions when they were unquestionably on the side of the angels. Empowering the people to find out those things the government would like to keep hidden may sometimes make things awkward for minister and civil servants, but it does much to bolster a democracy that often feels like it is slowly dying of indifference.
Perhaps in this brave new world of internet surveillance the government should give serious consideration to blocking Facebook, Twitter and the like and replacing them with alternatives that are run directly by GCHQ. Actually when you come to think of it people can get up to some pretty seditious things without having to go online to do so, perhaps the government should ban groups of more than three people meeting together in public places without a MI5 officer in attendance?
The suggestions made above, rightly, sound absurd; but if you enter into the Alice in Wonderland world where the government knows every detail of our lives but keeps its own activities hidden behind a cloak of secrecy that is the sort of mind-set you are taking on. A governing class that treats everyone, including before long its own members, as objects of suspicion will eventually be driven mad by paranoia.
At a time when the government is clawing back benefits from the ill, the elderly and the poor it would be deeply misguided to sanction the huge costs involved in setting up the massive apparatus of snoopers required to put these proposals into action. Even if the money could be found to do so the plan would fail due to the impossibility of monitoring the unceasing babble of internet and mobile phone chatter.
I have always though it rather an anachronism that we still make people knights of the realm, although if, like Sir Tim Berners-Lee, they are willing to have a go at slaying the dragon of state funded paranoia I’m willing to concede that they have their uses. If necessary we should all join him in taking to the streets to protest against government plans to snoop on the way individuals use the internet; but it’s probably not a good idea to tweet about it beforehand, you never know Big Brother might already be listening.