Imagine the government had the power to compel your internet service provider, your mobile operator, or even Google and Facebook to collect or retain certain data about your activities: who you were talking to, when and how long for; where your mobile phone was at a given time; what websites you visited. The police could then use this data to scan for suspicious activity, or trace an individual suspect’s activities through the entirety of their electronic life.
This is precisely what the government is proposing in the Draft Communications Data Bill. While some data is already being retained for a limited time period with the intention of being able to reconstruct a suspect’s activity for criminal investigation purposes, the new proposals go several steps further. They include the creation of entirely new data sets and the powers to “data mine” – investigate the data for conspicuous patterns even if no crime has been committed.
Sure, you say. I’m not a suspect; I’ve got nothing to hide. If it helps the police catch terrorists and paedophiles, why not?
Are you sure you have nothing to hide? Who decides what activity is suspicious, and what action to take as a result? Think about it.
Let’s say you’re an investigative journalist – or simply someone who likes the idea of investigative journalists being able to do their jobs and expose shady dealings and dodgy expense claims. You’re the kind of investigative journalist who meets contacts at random times in random places, who gets anonymous tip-offs, who works on stories that can be extremely embarrassing to the government… or the police. Even if your activity hasn’t already been singled out for analysis, chances are a high level scan would throw you up as someone who is suspicious. Who are you meeting in the middle of the night in a deserted car park? The police only need to look up who the other mobile phone in that car park belongs to, and they know. Who have you been emailing? What have you been googling? Suddenly a picture begins to emerge of the story you’re working on.
Oh, and by the way… your mobile phone was located at your GP’s surgery three times this month; or at the abortion clinic last week; or at the AA meeting. While the police may not necessarily want to know that, there are plenty of people who do: you employer, your church, or if you happen to have the misfortune to have attracted public interest in some way, the Daily Mail. Have we really seen the end of phone hacking, blagging and all the other dirty tricks that went with them in the tabloid press? Just by existing, the enormous data set the government is proposing to create becomes a target for all sorts of malicious activity.
It’s not like police don’t already abuse existing data either. With access to location information or detailed data on who someone has been communicating with, corrupt police officers get even more leverage over their victims. Domestic violence victims may well initiate contact with their abuser as part of the pattern of abuse they suffer. If the copper investigating your case has that information they can blackmail you into all sorts of things with the threat that it will be used to “prove” that you aren’t a victim of domestic violence after all.
Call me paranoid, but before handing additional powers to the state, I would like them to pass the “Stross Test”. This is based on a short story called “Minutes of the Labour Party Conference 2016” by Charles Stross, published in the anthology “Glorifying Terrorism”. In the story a BNP government uses anti-terrorism legislation passed by Labour in 2006 to establish and uphold a fascist state by labelling all opposition, including the Labour Party, as terrorists. Would you trust the BNP with the Draft Communications Data Bill?
The Open Rights Group is currently campaigning against the Bill. You can use the ORG campaign website to email your MP and explain to them your concerns about the proportionality, the potential for abuses and the lack of proper safeguards of these proposals.
In the meantime, with party conference season upon us, I will leave you with this thought from the minutes of that fictional Labour Party Conference in 2016:
“The Party would be grateful if you can reproduce and distribute this document to sympathizers and members. Use only a typewriter, embossing print set, mimeograph, or photographic film to distribute this document. Paper should be purchased anonymously and microwaved for at least 30 seconds prior to use to destroy RFID tags. Do not, under any circumstances, enter or copy the text in a computer, word processor, photocopier, scanner, mobile phone, or digital camera. This is for your personal safety.”