The fuss in the media today regarding the government’s plan to make Internet Service Providers capture personal communications data is nothing new. It was brought up under the last Labour government as the “Intercept Modernisation Programme” and received heavy criticism from the Tory party in opposition.
Now with the responsibility of government the conservatives seem to have seen things differently and the word is that the forthcoming Queen’s speech will contain measures to enable the collection of personal information that includes who you have telephoned and emailed or have received emails from and which websites you have visited. The details of what is being sent in the emails isn’t being asked for at this time.
Apart from the obvious privacy issues surrounding all this it is likely that some of the reasons that the original proposals under Labour were not seen through were the cost and practicalities of the matter.
Whilst communications providers store phone call details for billing purposes this is very much not the case with email or web access. The cost is prohibitive and there has been hitherto no reason to do so. What is being considered is doable but probably not without significant up front engineering costs involving much network redesign. Moreover once up and running this facility would be expensive to maintain.
We could ask ourselves “what price avoiding another 9/11?” which is clearly the genuine question being asked by the security services.
The problem is that it is too easy to avoid detection on the internet. Proxy services provide anonymity for web users – Google “free proxy server” and you will find 33million results. Encouraging internet users to use anonymising services could be counter productive for other government initiatives. For example encouraging a culture of anonymity online means such people could not be targeted for Copyright Infringing activities under the Digital Economy Act (ie music downloading) and we would be making it easier for people to go undetected when doing genuinely bad things such as accessing illegal child abuse material. Proxy servers are also often the source of malware!
Whilst on the subject of Google, gmail users could not be tracked and nor would any other webmail service. These services are typically based overseas presenting additional legal access problems for retrieval of information.
Then of course there are social networking platforms – Facebook, twitter, Google+ et al could all be used but don’t seem to be in the mix for this legislation. If they were added in they would present further huge complexity to the task. Another one: ever thought about leaving messages in a Google Document for others to pick up, or maybe using Dropbox?
The reality is that it is nigh on impossible to stop people communicating using the internet without being discovered and attempting to develop a system that will do this is not only likely to be wasted money but will be a step towards entering a category of nation currently occupied by the likes of China and Iran.