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London's Burning Over Government Surveillance Plans

London's Burning Over Government Surveillance Plans

Officials in the UK want to give law enforcement organizations the ability monitor certain aspects of all electronic communications. The proposal wouldn't let police read a message's actual content without a warrant, but they would be able to learn who sent it, who received it, how long it was and the place from which it was sent. The idea has privacy advocates troubled.

By Richard Adhikari
05/18/12 11:27 AM PT

The UK government has proposed plans to monitor the electronic communications of everyone in that country.

It claims it's not seeking to read the content of the communications, according to reports, but instead wants to know who the senders and recipients of messages are, the places from which messages are sent, and other details such as the length of messages and their formats.

The proposed legislation "is about granting law enforcement authorities and government agencies access to current and historical Internet data -- whom you Skyped, whom you chatted with on Facebook, who you emailed ... and when," Gus Hosein, director of Privacy International in London, told TechNewsWorld.

It's "is highly controversial here in the UK, and already the government has had to climb down on some of the powers it was seeking," Hosein continued. "So we will see what happens once MPs (members of parliament) see the draft clauses."

Not a Feather Shall Fall ...

The UK government hasn't released a draft of the legislation yet, Hosein said. However, reports indicate the legislation would give the government access to Skype, instant messages and emails. UK prime minister David Cameron outlined the plans in Parliament, stating the measures are needed to protect the country from terrorism.

Citizens would be protected because the authorities would still need a warrant to access the contents of their communications, the UK government contended.

Opposition to the proposal erupted among legal experts and civil liberties groups as well as Liberal Democrat members of Britain's coalition government. In general, opponents expressed fears that the surveillance would exceed its stated purpose. Privacy International's commentaries on the issue are available here.

Pressure from deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, a Liberal Democrat, forced the government to backtrack from initial plans to present a bill and offer to put forward a draft instead.

Terrorists Under Every Bed?

Perhaps the UK government's move should come as little surprise in a time when the threat of terrorism is rampant, flash mobs form through the use of instant messages, and social media networks are testing the bounds of privacy.

In April, Al Qaeda threatened to launch attacks on the UK if it deports firebrand Muslim cleric Abu Qatada to Jordan. Back in 2011, riots in the UK were apparently organized through instant messages over BlackBerry Messenger, leading the prime minister to propose clamping down on social media during unrest. Meanwhile, Facebook and Google have been investigated repeatedly for violations of consumers' privacy.

Still, governments are in a difficult situation. Not monitoring communications could leave terrorists free to coordinate their actions using electronic communications. Where should they draw the line between necessary surveillance and preserving citizens' privacy?

Coming to America?

Might the United States, which is also grappling with the issue of terrorism, look at instituting similar wide-ranging surveillance?

"The U.S. National Security Agency already does this in the name of fighting terrorism, and governments throughout the world, including that of the U.S., have proposed or implemented similar systems," Barry Steinhardt of Privacy International's U.S. sister organization Friends of Privacy told TechNewsWorld. "Elements of the U.S. government have proposed to do it more openly."

Currently, the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), legislation that would allow the private sector to share Internet traffic information with the U.S. government, is wending its way through Congress.

"CISPA could enhance the U.S. government's legal authority and capability," Steinhardt said.

Meanwhile, the National Security Agency is reportedly building a large new surveillance center in Utah, Wired reports.

"There is a global debate ongoing about government surveillance, and what one country does can affect how other countries approach the rights of their citizens," Jim Dempsey, vice president for public policy at the Center for Democracy & Technology, told TechNewsWorld. "We are watching this [development in the UK] with grave concern."


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