The British government loves surveillance. In fact, British people generally love watching what other British people are doing when they're not looking. A few years ago, a group of academics described the United Kingdom as "the most surveilled country" in the Western world, and things haven't gotten better since. By 2016, Britain will be home to an estimated 3.7 million closed circuit television cameras (CCTV), a large number of which will be high definition enough to identify faces up to half a mile away.
By then, surveillance cameras will be the least of Britons' worries, if the country's spy agencies get their way. With support from members of parliament, the UK's domestic intelligence agency, MI5, wants to install "black boxes" throughout the country's telecommunication network that will enable the government to spy on almost everything people do and say on the Internet.
Well, that sounds horrifying. As part of the widely criticized Communications Data Bill, these "black boxes" — or "probes" or whatever daunting term you want to attach to the technology — would boost British authorities ability to monitor Internet activity inside its own borders. (They could ostensibly intercept communications from other countries as well, but I'll get back to that in a second.) The black boxes would catch communications data as it zipped through cyberspace and store it away for law enforcement and intelligence agencies to access. This does not mean that MI5 will be reading all of your emails. It just means that they will be able to read all of your emails if they want. According to the bill, they'll want to read your email if they believe the intelligence will be helpful for counterterrorism or high-level crime. It's not just your email, either.
British authorities are struggling with ways to access data from a growing number of sources using a technique called Deep Packet Inspection. The technology looks for packets of data streaming through the wires, inspects them and extracts what it needs. In addition to email, they're looking for Facebook activity, Twitter tweets, Flickr photos, browsing history, porn habits and Skype calls — to name a few. Realistically, if the black boxes concept makes it into the bill and bill becomes a law, MI5 will literally be able to monitor everything you do on the Internet. This data would then be lumped together with information from your home phone (remember those?) and your cell phone. If you don't live in the U.K., you're probably just thing, "Oh, p-shaw. My data's safe." But you'd be wrong.
The whole reason British intelligence agencies want to stick bugs in the country's networks is so that it can keep up gain a total picture of what citizens are doing. So when they intercept an email exchange, they're not just seeing what the British citizen in question is saying. They're obviously going to see the data from the other end. The law doesn't give them free reign to go hacking into your Gmail inbox without a court order, though they can see the names and email addresses of the sender and the recipient. Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, wasn't really exaggerating, when he told the Daily Mail that Big Brother had arrived.
"The really worrying part of this is the 'filter' the government wants to build," he said. "This would put data from your mobile phone, email, web history and phones together, so the police can tell who your friends are, what your opinions are, where you've been and with who." And not to scare you too much but, "It could make instant surveillance of everything you do possible at the click of a button."
This is starting to sound less like homeland security effort and more like a James Bond movie. It's unclear if Bond's employer, MI6, showed up at the hearing to support MI5's request, but the agency would certainly get involved if foreign intelligence is being intercepted. (Quick lesson on British bureaucracy: MI5 is the agency that deals with domestic intelligence, and MI6 deals with foreign intelligence.)
Part of the trouble is that foreign countries like the United States keep building new technology that lets us talk to each other on the Internet, and part of the reasoning for going to such extreme measures as tapping the networks is to keep up with the times. Current legislation, the report says, "does not cover the problems of emerging technology," and thus "consideration must, therefore, be given to a new approach." Ahh, "a new approach." Now that definitely sounds like a Bond movie.
Obviously, civil liberties advocates hate this idea. They hate the Communications Data Bill and have nicknamed it the "Snooper's Charter." They hate all the surveillance cameras. And they hate the message that this all sends to the rest of the world. Emma Carr, from the group Big Brother Watch, is one of these advocates. Using highly intrusive technology to monitor how people use the internet is not something that a civil society should be using on every citizen. "This sends a highly dangerous signal to regimes around the world who are looking for justification to use similar equipment on their populations," she said about the black boxes. "The fact that at no point does the government need court approval, either to install, use or look at data gathered is a major concern and if it is to be used as a last resort should only be done so on the highest judicial authority."
That is concerning. But hey, we should be used to it by now here in the old U.S. of A. The National Security Agency armed itself with similar technology almost two years ago, teaming up with Internet service providers so that they can read your email anytime. Thanks to the out-of-date laws that govern electronic communications in America, the government can already access and read anybody's email after it's 180-days-old, though Congress is due to vote on an update to these laws sometime this year.
Whatever isn't covered by our dusty cabinet of Internet privacy legislation is privy to the Patriot Act-like counterterrorism measures pushed through during the Bush administration. That means that the government can basically stalk you any time they want, if they think you might be a terrorist. And now you have the Red Coats to look out for, too.
At the same time, privacy laws and the technology they enable are always in a constant state of flux. As soon as the Brits update their legislation, and we update ours, someone will have probably invented the next Facebook, and they'll have to start all over again.
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