Civil Liberties

The British Inquisition

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Britain's security services want the right to access records of every telephone call, e-mail, and Net connection made in the United Kingdom. All such communications would be logged, and the information would be stored for years in vast state-run "data warehouses."

Big deal, you might say: That's about par for a country whose commitment to civil liberties peaked in the 13th century with the Magna Carta. Yet what the Brits now mull is nothing less than a global data trap. Any information passing through the U.K. in any form would be fair game. The international intent is clear enough from the justifications cited for the dragnet: such familiar bugaboos as child porn rings, terrorism, and international drug trafficking.

Roger Gaspar, deputy director general of the National Criminal Intelligence Service, framed the extraordinary measures as ordinary extensions of current crime fighting techniques. The log, he told BBC radio, would be "the eye-witness account for high-tech crime. There will be no one who sees what goes on and this is the comparable data."

But that would only be the case if the Home Secretary had long ago established a legion of eavesdroppers in every dwelling in Avalon. Just because bits and bytes are infinitely easier to collect and store than whispers and wailings does not mean the state can make a police powers claim to get them. New legislation might thus be required to fully deliver on the data-hoarding proposal. And the proposal has already sparked strong opposition from civil libertarians.