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On Hoon’s defence of the Snooper’s Database

Posted by James Hammerton @ 11:50 pm on 17 October, 2008.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
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Update: The edition of Question Time concerned is up online at the BBC, the discussion of the proposal starts after 48 minutes, 20 seconds in.

On Question Time on the 16th October, Geoff Hoon defended the plans to create a centralised database to store the details of who you phone, who you email, the location of your mobile whilst switched on, what web sites you visit and everyone you send text messages to:

On BBC One’s Question Time, Mr Hoon said the plans would only extend powers that already exist for ordinary telephone calls, to cover data and information “going across the internet”.

He said the police and security services needed the powers to deal with “terrorists or criminals” using telephones connected to the internet, for “perfectly proper reasons, to protect our society”.

But the Lib Dems’ communities spokeswoman Julia Goldsworthy said it sounded like “something I would expect to read in [George Orwell’s book] 1984″ and questioned whether the government and councils could be trusted not to misuse the powers.

She asked: “How much more control can they have? How far is he prepared to go to undermine civil liberties?”

Mr Hoon interjected: “To stop terrorists killing people in our society, quite a long way actually.

“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.”


He added: “The biggest civil liberty of all is not to be killed by a terrorist.”

It’s worth watching the video clip at the link above, to get some extra context, but the quotations seem accurate to me.

The “argument” Hoon is making is ridiculous for several reasons:

  • Terrorists, and other organised crims, could easily circumvent the measures being proposed here by simply not using the internet or phones to communicate, or by using and frequently changing unregistered PAYG phones and anonymous internet accounts. If they realise that the government will store the communications data of every electronic communication going through British systems, they’ll naturally take this fact on board and act to circumvent it. It is only likely to capture the less technologically aware or intelligent crims. That seems a poor return for everyone surrendering much of their right to privacy in their electronic communications.
  • The government already requires phone companies to retain the data concerned regarding phone calls for at least a year and will soon be requiring ISPs to retain the data regarding internet usage as well. This means they can already obtain the data for anyone they are suspicious of by demanding it from the ISPs and phone companies. They’ve given this power to local councils and numerous quangoes, not just the police and security services. I doubt creating a central database will make much difference, in terms of fighting terrorism, other than to allow random trawls of anyone’s data regardless of any suspicion. However it will make a huge difference if you wish to track the communications of the general public, or subsections such as political activists, politicians, union organisers, journalists, etc.
  • Terrorists may communicate and plan attacks by visiting each other in the privacy of their own homes. If we apply Hoon’s logic regarding the use of electronic communications to this situation, then it means we must put surveillance into every room of every building in Britain or be accused giving them a licence to kill. This is an absurd argument whether applied to the privacy of our electronic communications or the right to privacy in our own homes.
  • It seems to me that whether one dies from a terrorist bomb, a knifing, being shot or being poisoned, one is just as dead on one case as in the others so why we should single out “not being killed in a terrorist attack” as the biggest civil liberty of all is not clear. Surely it’s just as serious a violation of an individual’s civil liberties to be shot dead by the police whilst commuting on the Tube? Or to be murdered by a mugger?

Hoon’s argument here is emotive tosh that fails to take into account the impact on freedom of living under constant surveillance by the state, regardless of whether you’re a suspect or not, an impact that will be felt by everyone living in Britain if proposals like this go ahead, not merely those suspected of crime or those unlucky enough to die in a terrorist attack.

History has shown that giving governments the power to perform mass indiscriminate surveillance of the general population (as opposed to targetted surveillance against those suspected of being up to no good) leads to those governments representing a far greater threat to liberty than the terrorists Hoon worries about.

Even without a malevolent government taking power, these proposals would give huge power to anyone who gains access to it, legitimately or otherwise.

Does Hoon not realise that this proposal will create a huge honeypot for terrorists, other spy agencies, organised criminals, etc to attack, knowing that they could get useful information about who anyone they’re interested in communicates with (e.g. people working for GCHQ, the police, MI5, MI6, the government, public bodies or other organisations they wish to subvert)?

At the moment, they’d have to go to multiple organisations, subvert them and collate the data together. The government proposes to put it all in one place, thus making the job easier!

The British government’s record on securing the data it holds on us is abysmal, and even the Ministry of Defence continually loses laptops, CDs and memory sticks holding sensitive data. Why on earth would we trust them to do any better with this database?

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