UK Government Pushing to Pass ‘Snoopers’ Charter’ Surveillance Legislation

Privacy has recently roared back into the headlines and this time, it’s not the US CISPA legislation. It’s actually a piece of surveillance legislation that the UK is trying to pass. We take a look at what the legislation is and why it’s controversial.

Note: This is an article I wrote that was published elsewhere first. It has been republished here for archival purposes

We’ve been keeping tabs on the latest developments of CISPA, a controversial surveillance bill in the US, but CISPA isn’t the only surveillance legislation floating around right now. The UK is also considering surveillance legislation (currently being called the “Snoopers’ Charter”) of their own. Like CISPA, the Snoopers’ Charter has many opponents which includes digital and civil rights activists. Cory Doctorow of BoingBoing has been following this story closely.

Doctorow pointed to a news story in The Guardian which said that the government has written a “blank cheque” to fund this surveillance legislation:

The Home Office has confirmed it will foot the bill, thought to run into tens and possibly hundreds of millions, for collecting and storing the extra social media and web browsing records needed to implement the scheme, which critics have dubbed an “online snooper’s charter”.

Ministers did not put a figure on the cost of the new scheme but said it would be far less than the £2bn price tag estimated when Labour put forward a web-tracking scheme based on a central Home Office database in 2006.

The Liberal Democrats are expected to scale back their criticism of the legislation, which is to be published in draft form on Thursday, after Nick Clegg’s intervention secured a series of safeguards, including a scrutiny inquiry by MPs and peers that will report by the end of November.

But the measure is expected to continue to attract fierce criticism from libertarian Conservatives, led by the former shadow home secretary David Davis, who this week attacked it again, calling it “expensive, unnecessary and a huge invasion of everyone’s privacy”.

Indeed, in an age of austerity, why is the government all too prepared to blow big money on a massive invasion of people’s privacy anyway?

The plan is so controversial, even the British Conservative Party (the current governing party in Britain) is divided on it. From The Guardian (Via BoingBoing):

The disclosure means the taxpayer could face an as-yet-unspecified bill running into hundreds of millions of pounds for the “internet snooping scheme”.

It came as the former Conservative shadow home secretary, David Davis, accused the home secretary, Theresa May, of proposing an “incredibly intrusive” scheme that was exactly the same as the proposal David Cameron had attacked when Labour proposed it in office.

May, in turn, branded the scheme’s critics “conspiracy theorists”, risking an even deeper breach with her own party’s libertarian wing over the plan.

The Home Office has confirmed it will foot the bill, thought to run into tens and possibly hundreds of millions, for collecting and storing the extra social media and web browsing records needed to implement the scheme, which critics have dubbed an “online snooper’s charter”.

The Open Rights Group, partly in response to this legislation, has launched a citizens campaign training program starting on the 20th to teach British citizens how to talk to their politicians (dates and locations contained within link) (via BoingBoing)

Interestingly enough, although the government said it would cost far less than £2 Billion, an actual dollar figure came very close to that projection (via BoingBoing):

The government’s “online snooping” scheme to track email, Facebook, Twitter and other web use comes with an official pricetag of at least £1.8bn and an official warning that the figure may well prove to be an underestimate, the Home Office has revealed.

Ministers have already agreed to pay all the costs of the scheme, which will require phone and internet companies to collect and store for 12 months the records of internet and mobile phone use in Britain for access by police and intelligence services.

The draft communications data bill published on Thursday says the move will cost £1.8bn over 10 years but that an official impact assessment says the pricetag is in line with the Treasury’s “optimism bias” that understates the cost of major projects. It adds that the technical complexity of the scheme may well increase the costs and that the estimate does not allow for inflation or VAT.

So, what is in the Snoopers’ Charter? That was recently revealed as well (Via Slashdot):

If you were scared that your online activity was being tracked and possibly analyzed, let us inform you that you were very much accurate in your suppositions. No, this is not one of those conspiracy theories you hear on the news so often. The United Kingdom online monitoring law just got published showcasing some disturbing facts. The paper is 123 pages long and is actually a draft of the Communications Data Bill.

You might not be so happy to find out that from now, every single thing you do online will be recorded and stored by the good old Internet Service providers (ISP). What do we mean by online activity? Well, everything. From exchanging emails, browsing history, instant messaging to the most important use of social networks.

The entire bill is available for analysis on the government website (PDF).

As Doctorow commented, 38 Degrees has a petition available for British citizens to sign if they feel that this bill is not right.

Personally, I think there are a host of things the government could spend £1.8 Billion that would be much more productive. Things like paying down debt and making sure the budget is balanced or any sort of program that can help people find work could come to mind. Either way, I think it’s a very bad time to even think about trying to put in place a brand new program for the surveillance of British citizens.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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