Update: (10th August 2009)
The Interception of Communications Commissioner’s annual report has sparked fresh calls to control the amount of surveillance currently carried out on UK citizens. Read more in this ISPreview article
The question has been asked many times before, but just how did George Orwell foresee the future? Ok, so his timescales were a little off, but are we moving even closer towards a big brother culture? The government’s latest proposals suggest we are!
Sir David Pepper, Director of the British intelligence agency, Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) has announced plans to centrally store records of all electronic communications throughout the UK. The Interception Modernisation Programme (IMP) will be the largest surveillance system ever created in the UK and calls for a ‘live tap’ to be placed on every electronic communication in Britain including telephone calls, emails and visited websites.
The GCHQ and its supporters argue this is a necessary step in the fight against terrorism and that the centrally stored data will enable the police and government organisations to collect vital evidence of what it calls ‘terrorist friendship trees’ to identify potential plots and collaborations.
So how far are they willing to go? “quite a long way” according to Geoff Hoon, Transport Secretary, who recently defended the plans on the BBC’s Question Time. He went so far as to suggest “If they are going to use the Internet to communicate with each other and we don’t have the power to deal with that, then you are giving a licence to terrorists to kill people.”
- BBC: Hoon defends giant database plans
- Times Online: There’s no hiding place as spy HQ plans to see all
Unsurprisingly this project is facing huge amounts of criticism. The Liberal Democrats and many civil liberties groups have described the scheme as “something they would expect to read about in George Orwell’s 1984” and such an intrusion into the average person’s daily life is of course of enormous concern. But it’s not just the ethical implications of this proposal that are an issue. The IMP is expected to be the most expensive IT project in British history with an estimated cost of £12 billion, a cost that is reportedly already raising concerns within the Treasury especially in the current economic climate.
- The Register: Spy chiefs plot £12bn IT spree for comms überdatabase
And of course there is the ongoing concern over our levels of trust where the government and our data are concerned. The past year has seen numerous cases of losses of private and confidential data. By storing the UK’s communications in a central location, how secure will our information be and just who will be able to access it and how? How will the government ensure this system is not abused? Will they still need a court order to obtain such information or will anti terrorist departments be alerted to ‘suspicious’ activities?
These are just a few of the questions that CP’s such as Entanet and the general public want answers to and they all come down to the same overriding question – ignoring the immense ethical and cost implications for a minute, just how is this proposal workable?
In Entanet’s view it isn’t workable. We question whether the government has properly considered the impact it will have on CP’s. We’re concerned that the country will see a repeat performance of NPfIT, a project that’s over budget, overdue and highly criticised? NPfIT was originally expected to cost just £6.2 billion to fully implement, However more recent estimates show a cost of over £12billion and a delay of 4 years. Is The IMP the new NPfIT but on an even larger scale?
Will it even work?
Despite the GCHQ and the Home Secretary’s insistence that the IMP is an essential step in the fight against terrorism an influential US report by the National Academies, Protecting Individual Privacy in the Struggle Against Terrorists, suggests that this type of intelligence mining will be of no help and in essence will simply generate huge amounts of false leads. The report states “Modern data collection and analysis techniques have had remarkable success in solving information-related problems in the commercial sector; for example, they have been successfully applied to detect consumer fraud. But such highly automated tools and techniques cannot be easily applied to the much more difficult problem of detecting and pre-empting a terrorist attack, and success in doing so may not be possible at all.”
Let’s hope I have not been flagged on any government warning systems for researching and writing this article. Remember big brother might start watching!
Have your say!
What do you think of the new proposals? Is it a step too far for civil liberties or a justifiable plan in the fight against terrorism? Let us know by adding a comment to this article.
Update (5th January 2009)
The government has now announced that management of the giant database will be tendered out to a private company. This raises obvious concerns over the security and confidentiality of this information. Read more in this ISPreview article:
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