Announcement of the government’s plans to monitor the public’s web, email and phone use has been badly mishandled by Whitehall, leaving privacy campaigners a blank page on which to describe an Orwellian dystopia – one where all communication is monitored in a bid to make the country safer.
Supporters of the proposals say this is scaremongering, but their case has not been helped by contradictory statements from the Deputy Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister.
First, Home Secretary Theresa May said that the plans should be enacted as soon as possible, citing terrorists and paedophiles as justification enough. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg then said the proposals would be published in draft form first so that they could be debated in Parliament. Finally, Cameron, in a thinly veiled rebuff to Clegg, argued that the safety of the country is paramount.
These mixed messages have only served to deepen the public’s confusion and anxiety. The proposals’ critics are adamant that they will do next to nothing to prevent malicious attacks, given that cyber criminals are, by definition, technically adept enough to evade investigators.
And what about the threat they pose to privacy? Arguably, the threat has been overblown. What’s been buried under all the furore is the fact that the data the government plans to capture does not include the content of any communication, such as the text of an email or a conversation on the phone, only general information about the communication itself. Equally arguably, the government will simply collect a vast amount of useless data.
So while it is not certain that our privacy will be compromised just because the government wants the ability to know who a suspect was communicating with on a given day, what is certain is that it will cost a lot of money – something that has been given little attention.
The proposals are projected to cost up to £200m a year. Critics argue that if the goal is to make the country safer, that money would be better spent on hiring security experts.
It brings to mind all the money spent on CCTV in the City of London, which has made it the most monitored place on earth. Meanwhile, an anti-capitalist camp was still free to set up outside St Pauls and win widespread public support.
Privacy fears are just one repercussion of the plans. The other is the waste of public money.
Sooraj Shah, reporter, Computing