The UK governments Interception of Communications Commissioner, Sir Paul Kennedy, has revealed in his Annual Report [1st Jan to 31st Dec 2008] (Adobe Reader .PDF) that public authorities as a whole made a staggering 504,073 requests for communications data (your telephone, email or website access logs etc.) from Internet Service Providers ( ISP ) and Telecom operators.
The figure is slightly below the number of requests made in the previous year (519,260), while police forces and other law enforcement agencies remain the principal users of communications data. It does not include warrants issued by the Foreign Office to GCHQ and MI6, or those issued by the N.Ireland Secretary of State.
Still, many people fear that the state now has too much power and is invading the rights of innocent individuals by storing the details (but not content) of every phone call, email or website visit we make. Interestingly the report even admits that "some mistakes will be made, especially when public authorities are dealing with large volumes of communications data." One such example can be found below:
Sir Paul Kennedy explained:
"The police took swift action when information from a reliable source suggested that a number of very young children were at immediate risk of falling into the hands of a paedophile ring. Subscriber information relating to an Internet Protocol (IP) Address was obtained in order to locate an address for the children but unfortunately it would appear this was not correct.
The police entered the address and arrested a person who was completely innocent and further enquiries are continuing. This was a very unfortunate error and the whole process of obtaining data relating to IP addresses has been re-examined.
In this case there was confusion between the Internet Service Provider and the public authority over how the data should be interpreted, particularly in relation to the critical international time zones. Better checks and balances have been put in place to help clarify the process."
The report does not state precisely what "better checks and balances" have been implemented, which is important because as anybody familiar with the Internet knows - IP addresses are notoriously unreliable. They can easily be hacked, spoofed, redirected, hijacked and generally abused.
Those ignorant of the dangers always like to say, "If you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to fear," a popular phrase among many past and present dictatorships or communist states; we prefer "innocent until proven guilty" as opposed to the "guilty until proven innocent" style doctrine of unnecessary data collection.
Still, the government remains adamant that the outcome of its inspections are satisfactory and the inspectors concluded communications data is being "obtained lawfully and for a correct statutory purpose." It's impossible to tell from the limited data whether this is correct, although the multiple news reports about council spying might suggest otherwise.
The Liberal Democrat party Home Affairs Spokesman, Chris Huhne, told BBC News Online today :
"Many of these operations carried out by the police and security services are necessary, but the sheer numbers are daunting. It cannot be a justified response to the problems we face in this country that the state is spying on half a million people a year.
"We have sleepwalked into a surveillance state, but without adequate safeguards. Having the Home Secretary in charge of authorisation is like asking the fox to guard the hen house. The government forgets that George Orwell's 1984 was a warning and not a blueprint."
Presently the government is busy trying to extend its powers even further, albeit while also clamping down on potential areas of abuse (i.e. local councils). Personally we've always felt that the system needs more court/legal oversight and that the security services and ONLY the security services should have access.
Quite why local councils and in future, potentially, also the NHS and Royal Mail, should need access to our private personal email, website and or telecom logs is quite beyond comprehension. What do you think, has the state gone too far or is our government only doing what is necessary to combat criminal and terrorist threats against the country? Guest comments to this news are open.
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