The government has come under fire as a result of proposed legislation which would allow it to monitor all electronic communications of UK citizens without a warrant.
Due to be formally unveiled during the Queen's Speech next month, the legislation provides the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) signals intelligence service with the right to monitor all electronic communications activities within the UK.
Under the terms of the legislation, the content of such communications would be stored but theoretically inaccessible without a court-issued warrant. Fine-grained details, including the recipient or sender of text messages or emails, the length of phone calls, the frequency of calls to selected numbers, and a full list of websites visited would, however, be fully accessible at all times without the need for a warrant.
Government officials are downplaying the extent of the legal shift, claiming that such monitoring is necessary in order to keep the populace safe from the spectre of terrorism. 'It is vital that police and security services are able to obtain communications data in certain circumstances to investigate serious crime and terrorism and to protect the public. We need to take action to maintain the continued availability of communications data as technology changes,' a Home Office spokesperson explained in a statement to press.
'Communications data includes time, duration and dialling numbers of a phone call, or an email address. It does not include the content of any phone call or email and it is not the intention of Government to make changes to the existing legal basis for the interception of communications,' the spokesperson added.
The proposed monitoring legislation echoes that suggested by the previous Labour government back in 2006, which looked to establish a database recording the details - but not the contents - of all phone calls and emails made or received within the UK. That legislation failed to pass following strong opposition, however - opposition from the self-same political parties now proposing an even more Orwellian monitoring scheme.
Privacy activists are, naturally, up in arms regarding the change. 'Of course the security services should be able to get a warrant to monitor genuine suspects,' said Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group. 'But blanket collection, without suspicion, or powers to compel companies to hand over data on the say-so of a police officer would be very wrong. The saga of complicity between senior police officers and Murdoch's journalists should tell us how vulnerable people's privacy can be. The government should stand by the commitments both parties made before the election to protect our privacy.'
'This is an unprecedented step that will see Britain adopt the same kind of surveillance seen in China and Iran. This is an absolute attack on privacy online and it is far from clear this will actually improve public safety, while adding significant
costs to internet businesses,' added Nick Pickles, director of civil liberties organisation Big Brother Watch. 'If this was such a serious security issue why has the Home Office not ensured these powers were in place before the Olympics?'
Should the coalition government pass the law, we confidently predict rapid growth in the lucrative business of off-shore encrypted VPN tunnels and similar technologies, which would protect communications from government snooping.
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