Government Internet Snooping

I just filled in 38 Degrees’ email form against the UK government’s internet monitoring plans and would encourage you to do the same.

“Why should I be opposed to the authorities being able to track down criminals?” you might ask. “I’ve got nothing to hide, so I don’t care about being monitored”.

The 38 Degrees form letter includes the following point: “The government doesn’t track our letters or face-to-face meetings. Why should it assume the right to track us online?”. I think this is key. The latest proposals would involve keeping a record of every email sent and every website visited, ready for the authorities to sift through at will. Nothing on this scale has been proposed for monitoring people’s real life movements or snail mail communications, so why should the internet be any different? What is the justification for this extreme level of surveillance?

Is it because people can commit much more heinous crimes online than they can in real life, therefore a proportionately higher level of monitoring is called for? Well, no. Whilst it’s certainly possible to commit certain crimes online, the majority of the most serious criminal acts (murder, rape, acts of terrorism, assault, armed robbery, etc.) can only happen in the real, physical world. You might be able to use the internet to help organise such an atrocity, but at the end of the day you’re not going to be able to stick a knife in someone/point a gun at a bank teller/fly a plane into a building unless you venture out from behind your computer at some point.

Despite all the hysteria being stirred up about the big scary internet by some elements of the mainstream media practically from day one, it’s a far safer place than good old reality has ever been. Sure, someone might swipe your credit card details and yes, that’s bad, but surely it’s not as bad as if they beat you up in a dark alley and ran off with your entire wallet and anything else valuable you happened to be carrying. Some people might look at illegal pornography online, and yes, that’s bad as well, but surely it’s not as bad as going out and dragging people off the street to abuse. Some people bully online, but a lot of people bully in real life too… at least online you can block their emails, delete them from Facebook and stop reading what they write, an option you don’t generally have when you’re surrounded in the school playground. I’m not trying to minimise any horrible online experiences people might have had. I just think it’s important to get a sense of perspective and not to fear things disproportionately just because they’re newer and stranger and more hi-tech.

Ok, so maybe online crimes aren’t more serious than real life ones. But maybe they’re much harder to police? That could also justify a higher level of surveillance. I’m sceptical about this as well. Terrorism and paedophilia are the usual two reasons given for needing to clamp down on the internet, but terrorist acts remain (thankfully) extremely rare, and paedophiles seem to get rounded up often enough even with the powers police have at the moment if news reports are anything to go by. I’m not convinced any extra powers are really needed to deal with these threats. Any serious organised criminals will have already learnt how to cover their tracks pretty effectively, or they would have already been caught. Sure, you might catch a few more poor sods who thought the girl in that picture was 18, or bored teenagers who download bomb making manuals out of idle curiosity, but does that really warrant recording massive amounts of privacy-infringing information about every single person in the country? I don’t think it does.

In my opinion, the real reasons for this being introduced are a lot more flimsy and opportunistic:

1. In practise, monitoring everything everyone does in real life would be a stupendously huge undertaking, and probably impossible with current technology. You would need cameras literally everywhere, or else would need to tag everyone somehow and even then you’d still need tag readers everywhere. The cost would be astronomical. By contrast, internet access is relatively easy to monitor. It’s already in electronic form ready to be saved to disk, and almost all of it goes through a few large service providers. The cost of recording all traffic is still large but nowhere near as large as for monitoring everyone’s real life movements. So, I suspect the first reason they want to monitor all internet communications is simply “Because they can”.

2. The internet is still relatively new and so people will be more likely to accept the idea that it needs to be closely monitored… especially thanks to all the tabloid scaremongering that’s made it sound so threatening. The average person would (I hope!) not take kindly to being electronically tagged so that all their movements could be monitored, or to having cameras installed in their house so the police can watch what they do, but the internet still seems new and different enough that maybe it doesn’t have to be subject to the same rules. So the second reason is “Because the internet’s new enough and perceived as dangerous enough that many people will accept invasions of their privacy that they’d never accept in the physical world”.

3. If I was more paranoid, I’d add a third reason here, pointing out that governments and traditional media outlets have very good reasons to be scared of the internet (in terms of its ability to open them up to greater scrutiny in the first case, and make them increasingly irrelevant in the second) and so would have good reasons to try to assert control over it or make people afraid of it or afraid of using it for anything that might mark them out as somehow different. But I’ll leave it at that for now.

“If you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to fear”, according to a lot of people. Personally I prefer “If I’ve done nothing wrong, they’ve got no right to be spying on me”.

The bottom line is, police can still get a warrant if they need to investigate something happening online, and then they can start monitoring communications, just like they’ve always had to do. Maybe having to get a warrant makes it difficult for them to do their job. Good. I want it to be difficult for them. If it’s difficult, they will only investigate things that are actually serious enough to be worth investigating and will leave everyone else alone. If it’s easy, they will be tempted to trawl through everyone’s data looking for any minor infractions or slight deviations from the norm that they can find. And that’s not a direction I’d like this country to be going in :(.