In recent days we have seen the government has been making plans to monitor internet traffic in the UK.

Immediately the government has found itself on the back foot, backbench Lib-Con MPs being bemused that when in opposition in 2006, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats put up such fierce opposition to a nearly identical plan, that the Labour government of the time signalled a retreat. Add to the mix that promises to safeguard civil liberties were in the manifestos of both parts of the Lib-Con Alliance in the most recent election, and you have a very confused House of Parliament.

No one is going to be looking through ordinary people’s emails or Facebook posts. Only suspected terrorists, paedophiles or serious criminals will be investigated

Theresa May
Home Secretary

So why the sudden turn around? Well, that’s not abundantly clear; whilst this government, like the last, cites security concerns, one can’t help but wonder who David Cameron has been eating pasties with recently. Catching pedophiles and terrorists (as claimed by Home Secretary Teresa May has a strong (if somewhat hysterically repetitive) moral allure. However, there is good reason to suspect that these are aims that the initiative will singularly fail to deliver, and the notion that “ordinary people will not be targeted” carries with it the usual dilemmas and pitfalls.

There are three assumptions one must make to justify the claim that innocent people need not fear government surveillance of their internet, or other communications.

1. The law is always just

Within our parents’ lifetime, it has been illegal to be gay. Within our grandparents’ lifetime, people went to prison for avoiding conscription into military service during World War One. Dictators have killed millions of people over the course of the 20th century- dictators originally elected in some form by their people. Within the last two centuries, Britain lorded it over nearly a quarter of the world through political play and military force. Laws, historically, have not been just, and there are laws which are still viewed by  those who break them as unjust, and those people may be vindicated in the future.

2. Those in Power are Honest

Pete Cruddas

Pete Cruddas- do you trust this man?

Historically, those in power have sought every advantage to keep themselves there. We are expected to believe that their intentions are always honest. Oddly, we are expected believe this less than two weeks since Peter Cruddas was caught misleading somebody (be it the public or wealthy donors), by informing Conservative party donors that they could influence policy by having dinner with David Cameron. David Cameron refused to share with the public a list of donors he had eaten with – even though only people with something to hide need fear surveillance! The Watergate scandal, where President Nixon was caught spying on his opponents, should serve as a warning also. Politicians may maintain that it wouldn’t under any circumstances attempt to subvert the use of this technology in this way, it is worth remembering that the tools of today belong to the powerful of tomorrow.

3. Those in Authority Are Competent

Frankly, the record of parliamentarians in the field of information protection is embarrassing. The leaking of MoD documents in 2011, right up to the aspects of this years budget being leaked ahead of schedule illustrate this. An inquiry was set up on the 19th March this year to investigate leaked documents pertaining to the Hillsborough disaster. The organisations which are asking us to trust us with this data do not have the track record to back up the notion that they can handle it responsibly or safely. How long do we think it will be before a Murdoch-owned paper lays its hands on an embarrassing internet history of a celebrity, or an “ordinary person”?

Technological Points

Claims that only the direction and not the content of communication are technologically ill founded- the website you are looking at gives information about its content. If you know someone has visited the alcoholics anonymous website, it is not that stretch of an imagination what they were there for. If someone is in email communication with a journalist of the Guardian from a government email, there’s a fair shout at what the contents are. One cannot disengage the direction of a communication and its likely content, and there will be a lot of content that will be very interesting to groups which do not intend to catch pedophiles or terrorists.

…these measures are easily circumventable…

Lastly, these measures are easily circumventable. Let us assume the worst case scenario- the government is monitoring both the nature of the communications you are making, and the end point of those communications. Firstly, we have well known encryption algorithms, that without knowing the key would take more than 2 million million million years to decrypt, using technology that even now simply does not exist. So that’s content taken care of.

Taking care of direction is also fairly trivial. There are services on the internet called proxy servers. What happens when using these servers is that you send your request to the proxy server, which fetches your request, and delivers the content back to you. Many people will route through the same proxy, and the net effect is that anyone tracking your communication knows only that you are communicating with the proxy, along with thousands of other people. What you requested will, of course, be encrypted.

This technology is widely available, in current use by many people, and easy to implement. In addition, the crooks who know what they are doing are already using these systems and safeguards. Contrary to not targeting “ordinary users” this measure, will in fact only target ordinary users. In a time where governments are increasingly making secret backdoor deals, it does seem to truly be one rule for them, and one rule for us.

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  • Dan Palmer
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    Of course there is an issue about privacy from the government here, I don’t really want them looking through my personal communications, but arguably an innocent person has nothing to worry about.

    I think the more important issue here is that monitoring communications like this would create the world’s single biggest repository of personal information and it would be the ultimate resource for many of the world’s criminals leaving our safety online in the hands of a government that has repeatedly shown it’s incompetence when it comes to technology. In fact with this amount of important data, I wouldn’t trust anyone.

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    Philip Adler
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    “Of course there is an issue about privacy from the government here, I don’t really want them looking through my personal communications, but arguably an innocent person has nothing to worry about.”

    I think that rather disregards points 1-3 of this article, and has historically been untrue. Those who disagree with those in authority have something to fear, and that is not the same thing.

    I agree with you that it is a concern in terms of information safety, hence my concern at the claims that the nature of information separation, and the competence of the supposed guardians of said data.

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    Dan Palmer
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    Yes, you have a point that someone could be innocent and still have something to fear, my comment was an over-simplification, and just the government knowing the information is enough grounds for it to be wrong in my opinion.

    However, I think the more immediate threat does come from possible leaking of the information to people with malicious intent rather than the government’s use of it.

    Another problem with the monitoring is that it is trivial for anyone with technical knowledge to bypass, it would only provide data on those people not doing anything wrong as those who are will know how to protect themselves.

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