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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The UK Government's proposed Big Brother database of phone calls & emails

First off, let me say that I like feeling secure, and living slap back in the middle of central London I'm acutely aware of the risks of terrorism.

But the proposals being considered by the UK government to build a central database of of phone calls and emails are as scary, as they are ridiculous. Now I suspect that (initially) the main task will just be collecting call-detail records and IP addresses & email headers, rather than the full content of voice calls and email bodies & attachments.

I don't have a problem with police accessing call records, or cell tower locations, in order to investigate crime. I don't mind them tapping the calls of suspects, or even applying some sort of pattern-recognition algorithms to suspicious-looking "networks" of people. They probably do this already, and within reason I don't mind the process being made more efficient.

But frankly, on this occasion I trust the telecom operators to be more secure with the data than the UK's clueless and hapless Home Office. Given recent data losses, and evidence of abuses of the existing powers to examine electronic records for petty bureaucratic reasons, the current administration's record on these matters is execrable.

The excuse that this is just a way to implement the EU's rules on harmonised record-keeping are a cop-out as well.

While I recognise that there is useful security information to be gleaned from aggregate data sets like this, this needs to be set against the negatives of untrustworthy and sometimes downright malicious oversight of that data. And in any case, any serious terrorist is able to use 101 techniques to circumvent this - from encryption to steganography to anonymous remailers, and a bunch of other things I'm not going to write about on a public blog. Yes, some patterns might emerge after an event, enabling associates to be traced more quickly. But even that doesn't offset the much greater risks from information misuse.

I'm personally willing to accept a modicum more risk to my safety, set against a much greater risk to my liberty.

The current UK Government is one of the world's worst offenders in assuming that "risk management" is the same as "risk minimisation", and that its citizens will accept any tyrannical methods proposed in the name of security. I'm looking forward to it getting its well-deserved kicking in upcoming elections.


Anonymous said...

The problem is that the UK Government will bring it in and ignore any appeals from the general public. First RIPA, then the ID cards bill, now this - unfortunately noone cares, ask Joe Public and "Its about the terrorists innit" is about as much as they care, the UK public is sleepwalking into a police state.

Its the typical way the govt brings in legislation, find a suitable bogey man and say it'll tackle them, one year its paedophiles, next its gun crime, now its the terrorists. Anything to squeeze in an extra layer of oversight.

The technology for recording most of it is available now, ready and working, its not some pie in the sky IT project run by incompetent government project managers that will explode in cost and we could hope might end up on the scrapheap as a result.

Anonymous said...

This is actually the government implementing an EU law thats been on the table since 2005. now the deadline is in sight everyone has their knickers in a twist! we are legally obliged to implement this thing.
probably worth noting that the UK was also one of the four states that originally proposed the legislation back then as well...

The Lal said...

Know of a startup thats been heavily courted by the govn and some other entities with 2 chars and a #
to sift thru all that phone data and work out 'patterns' so save us all from the bad boys that are out there.
See now u feel safer. right?