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The Price Of Cyber Safety?

The question of whether freedom is an acceptable price to pay for safety isn’t a new one; but now that the world has moved online, the parameters of the debate are changing. Net firms have spoken out against the ‘Snooper’s Charter’ bill that’s currently being pushed as part of the Communications Data Bill before the House of Lords, and it affects us all.

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What’s the crack?

To say that Cameron’s recent statements about encryption (or lack thereof) have been unpopular would be a wee bit of an understatement; and the latest group to weigh in on the danger of bad cyber security laws are the net firms.

A group of unelected peers want to make amendments to the Counter Terrorism and Security Bill – 18 pages to be exact – that would force Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to log more of what us regular Joes do online, and then let law enforcement and security services see that data more easily.

What does it actually involve?

If passed as is, the peeps providing our internet, social networks, and telecommunication firms (for example, BT) would have to keep records of all users’ activities, everything from browsing history to private calls and messages. Some information is already available but not as much; for example, it may be possible to see when a message was sent, but not what was said within it.

There are “substantial concerns”, not only about the collection of the data itself, but also how it’s stored and who has access to it; arguably there’s a potentially equal, or greater, threat of who might get their hands on it (especially as ISPs would have to store data for a year now – that’s a lot of personal info floating about!).

What are the opposing sides of the story?

The peers, including Lord Carlile, say that it’s an important way to fight terrorism, as well as other types of crime – especially time-sensitive ones (say, if a child is abducted). One the other hand, others are saying it’s against freedom of speech and democracy.

The ISP association (ISPA) has called the bill “ill-judged” and “regrettable”, and the Open Rights Group, which campaigns on issues of digital freedom, is calling it an “abuse of procedure”. On a purely practical level too, it might not be the best idea, and Big Brother Watch director Emma Carr said: “It is the wrong solution and would divert resources from focused surveillance operations at a time when the agencies are already struggling to cope with the volume of information available.”

Those for changing the Counter Terrorism Bill include a former Conservative defence secretary, a former Metropolitan police commissioner, a former Labour defence minister and a Liberal Democrat peer; and Cameron has previously said: “That vital data is crucial not only in terrorism, but in finding missing people, in murder investigations, in serious crime investigations.”

The Guardian‘s Ken Macdonald agrees that there is value in the data, but not to the extent Cameron is trying for, saying: “It’s hard to think of a single piece of heavyweight criminal litigation in recent years that hasn’t included communications metadata: not the content, but the fact that calls were made, by and to whom, and when and from where.”

It’s a complicated enough issue, and was already rejected last time it was suggested as the Communications Data Bill (where it was first dubbed the ‘Snooper’s Charter’); Clegg and his party have spoken out against it, and Miliband is saying Labour will be ‘cautious and considered’.

The House of Lords has been discussing the issue today, but what’s important at this point is that everyone realises how relevant the issue is to them, and questions whether it’s a price they’re willing to pay.

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