Tories Learn to Stop Worrying and Love Internet Surveillance


In 2008, when British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's Labour Party government floated the idea of routinely collecting information about email traffic and website visits in search of suspicious patterns associated with fraud, terrorism, or child pornography, the Tories were outraged. Dominic Grieve, the shadow home secretary, called the plan "a substantial shift in the powers of the state to obtain information on individuals" and warned that "any suggestion of the government using existing powers to intercept communications data without public discussion is going to sound extremely sinister." That was then. Now that the Conservative Party is in charge, The Washington Post reports, it is contemplating a surveillance program that sounds very similar:

The plan may authorize the national surveillance agency—which is known as GCHQ and whose Web site describes its mission as keeping "our society safe and successful in the Internet age"—to order the installation of thousands of devices linked to the networks of Internet service providers, giving agents broader access to everyday communications. The examination of the contents of those exchanges—such as the text or images contained in an e-mail—would still require special warrants.

But for the first time, intelligence agencies might, for instance, access information such as the times, destinations and frequencies of phone calls, texts and e-mails without a warrant. They could also use collected data to track worrisome Internet patterns in a bid to expose terrorist cells, pedophilia rings and other lawbreakers, according to sources briefed on the proposal, which came to light after a report this weekend in London's Sunday Times.

Eric King, head of research at Privacy International, tells the Post:

I'm afraid that if this program gets introduced, the U.K. will be leapfrogging Iran in the business of surveilling its citizens. This program is so broad that no other country has even yet to try it, and I am dumbfounded they are even considering it here.

At least one Tory, M.P. David Davis, remains troubled:

They are talking about doing this with no real judicial control. If they seek this information after a judge's warrant, I would be perfectly happy. But this is unfettered access. This kind of data mining can lead to innocent people being pursued.

Davis (as paraphrased b y the Post) speculates that his fellow Conservatives are responding to "pressure from high-ranking members of Britain's intelligence agencies, who see the new powers as pivotal." Who could have predicted that spies would oppose restrictions on spying?

More on British surveillance here.