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Government surveillance in a free society?

Time was when MI5 (or whatever they are called) wanted to listen in on your conversation they sent someone round to the local telephone exchange with some wires and a couple of bulldog clips.

The breadth of things that could be monitored was actually fairly large. I remember once, many years ago, being shown satellite photographs of the lake at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in the days running up the announcement that there was a problem with the reactor. The thermal imagery of the lake showed it warming up substantially over a few days. The information showing that there was a problem was being collected by our “security forces”.

The fact is whilst the data was there nobody saw it as it was buried in so much other information, photos etc, that you had to specifically been looking for it to see that something was wrong. The amount of personal information that they could gather about you was fairly limited and the number of people they could do this to was not huge. It was not a scalable system.

Nowadays the game has changed. There is so much personal information out there in electronic format that, were it accessible, someone could build an incredibly accurate picture of who you are with intimate details of your every-day goings on. They could do this for everybody.

The government has floated the idea that it should be allowed to gather all this information and store it for use in the prevention of terrorism. This caused an outcry with people from many stakeholder groups coming out against the idea. I made a number of appearances myself in the national media discussing why it was technically not sensible. Any system put in place would be expensive and too easy to bypass with the latter being the more pertinent.

The plans were very quickly changed  to “draft” which meant that the shape of the legislation could be debated in much greater detail than if we had just been presented with “the plan”.

The government position is that all it is asking is that existing legislation that allows it to monitor certain communications activities is brought up to date in line with advances in technology and the advent of the internet.

This is not the first time in recent years that this has been proposed. It was mooted by the last Labour government to great objections from the Tories. At the time the scope changed from a “central database” to a distributed one and then the suggestion was put on the back burner. The scope change was supposedly down to concerns over the cost of running a central data base (someone quoted £2Bn set up cost) and the worries over holding a lot of potentially very sensitive data at a single location that if lost or stolen could have disastrous privacy consequences.

Of course it doesn’t matter whether the data base has a centralised or distributed. Logically it makes no difference so the placatory remarks about it “no longer being about central databases” is a red herring.

Last week I spoke at the Scrambling for Safety conference at the London School of Economics. There was pretty much standing room only for a discussion that was attended by a wide variety of stakeholders, including Members of Parliament and a former Chief Constable.

In the days where all your communications could be monitored (following a court order) because of the limitations on how this relatively small amount of information could be gathered (ref bulldog clips) it had to be very targeted. In other words there had to be strong suspicions that you were up to no good to make it worthwhile for someone to monitor your activities.

Now the government wants to know everything about everyone. It will be able to use data mining techniques to pull all sorts of interesting reports about individuals. For example if a suspected terrorist is being tracked they would be able to easily see who that person has been talking to or emailing or in theory even sending Instant messages to via social media sites. They will also be able to see which websites that person has been visiting. Their position is that if you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to fear.

Let’s have a think about this. Below I have shown two URLs to the same website (Google):…1829970.1837175.0.1839719.,or.r_gc.r_pw.r_cp.r_qf.,cf.osb&fp=b8c24aa13e2fc14b

The first is fairly straightforward. The second however potentially reveals a lot more information about you as a person. It says you have been searching for “al qaeda” and “porn”. Many people might be interested in finding something about al qaeda. The same is probably also true for porn.

The point is that in this case the government database would contain information that said you as an individual were interested in porn. They may tell you that this is information that would never be used but the data will be there. Not only will the data be there but it will be there waiting for someone to steal it or leave it in a laptop or dongle on a train or any other means of leaking supposedly secure information to the outside world. It would happen. It would just be a matter of time. Nothing is totally secure where people are involved. And it doesn’t have to be porn. It could be any information that you might find embarrassing for others to find out – membership of the trainspotters club? Weightwatchers? Alcoholics Anonymous?

The government is supposedly only interested in people planning to perpetrate terrorist acts and, perhaps other criminal activities but the data base would store data about all your interests. How about music downloads? It isn’t a criminal offence to download copyrighted material from the internet, it’s a civil offence. Why don’t we look to see who has been searching for music download sites? Or how about political parties you don’t agree with? What’s to say that someone with a huge majority in parliament might in future decide to look at “fringe” parties they don’t like.

If the infrastructure is already in place it would be a very easy step to increase the scope of the “surveillance”. It would also be a relatively small step to start using this same infrastructure to block access to websites you don’t like, for whatever reason.

Where do you draw the line? You have to draw the line right at the beginning, before you take any steps towards infringing on people’s privacy.

This might not sound very cooperative with the effort to counter terrorism but the fact is that past successes have only been gained by very targeted methods. Experience shows you have to have a good idea who is going to be a problem before you start monitoring them in more detail. Otherwise the scope of the job is too great. The Glasgow bombers, for example, were caught because of very targeted surveillance. Even retired Police Chief Sir Chris Fox has come out publicly against the plans.

The fact is you can’t trust the government to do the right thing here and the only sensible option is to do nothing. I wonder if Her Majesty the Queen understands the fuss she will cause when she reads out her forthcoming speech. We can’t afford to remain a silent majority on this issue if we want to stay a free society.

More as it happens…

Trefor Davies

By Trefor Davies

Liver of life, father of four, CTO of, writer, poet,

4 replies on “Government surveillance in a free society?”

I agree 100% Trefor, nice post. I’m deeply worried by the massive erosion of privacy that we already face, without this over-reaching legislation being seriously suggested too. I know it’s cliche but at what point do we just admit the ‘terrorists’ have won? When I can’t board a flight without being searched inside and out, I think that time is closer than people realise.

“if you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to fear”

My standard response to that rationalisation is to ask “Who decides what you have to hide?”…

I absolutely agree with what you have said. As well as all the rational objections you have put forward there are other pressing reasons to oppose this legislation. For me, a very important issue is that it would fundamentally change the balance of power between the State and the Individual. If they had proposed opening everyone’s mail, there would have been uproar. But this is very much worse than that! If this does indeed go ahead, I would propose a campaign of civil disobedience. I’m not an expert but what immediately comes to mind is putting a suitable selection of trigger words in every email, so as to overwhelm any attempt at an Echelon style content analysis. Perhaps we could all surf the web via Tor and send all our emails using pgp or other encryption software. I’m sure this wouldn’t stop messages being read but it would certainly make it much more expensive! Others more knowledgeable than me must have better ideas. The really unfortunate aspect of this is the corrosive effect it will have on the relationship between the thinking citizen and the State. Just thinking about it makes me so cross that I can see my attitude to the State changing from that of a willing participant in preserving our institutions and way of life, to someone who sees the State as an overbearing malevolent structure bent on crushing free speech and free thought and which must be fought on this issue at every opportunity.

Good post summing up the issues very succinctly.

That the data will be there is temptation enough for the inquisitive. That it will be a millstone around the taxpayers’ necks and be poorly managed is just as frightening.

As regards the counter-terrorism argument, surely there’s a concept of “acceptable risk”?

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