The newspapers this week have been full of outrage about the possibility of new legislation concerning surveillance of internet communications. “Government plans to allow email surveillance are among the most serious threats to freedom in the democratic world” says the Guardian. Is our democracy about to descend to the levels of Syria, Burma, Russia and Iran? How can this be?
For goodness sake, anyone following this topic knows it is not news. It is history.
Automatic monitoring of telecommunications by software designed to recognise key words has been standard practice for at least fifty years. It first surfaced in the media during the 1984-85 miners’ strike when computer monitoring of flying pickets’ telephone calls was used to counteract demonstrations.
Do you know the town of Cleave just north of Bude? If you take a drive past the old air force base of Morwenstow, you cannot fail to notice two huge dish aerials. Close by at Goonhilly Down is the BT satellite telecommunication centre that receives transatlantic telecoms traffic. This network has been the nerve centre of a joint operation between GCHQ (UK Government Communications Headquarters) and the United States National Security Agency (NSA) since the early 1980s. It surfaced in the media when it was used to track ‘Moscow Gold’ – the bank transfer of $1m from Russia to the miners during the strike and to track down their secret funds in Europe.
Communications monitoring goes back even further than that however. In 1966 the National Security Agency took delivery of new, sophisticated early IBM computers and a new idea was born. They installed them at the former RAF base at a Menwith Hill in Yorkshire – previously used to monitor Soviet communications. The technology opened up new possibilities for automating surveillance. The NSA was able to automate the labour-intensive watch-list scrutiny of intercepted telex messages. The possibilities grew and grew as the technology improved. As computing power expanded, monitoring of international leased line communications transiting through Britain became possible.
Since that time, privacy has never had a chance.
By the 1990’s it seemed like things were getting out of hand so in 1992, the Labour government introduced the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa). This was hailed as forward looking, human rights compliant legislation to codify and regulate the use of information about our private communications. Phew! Unfortunately, the only thing that can be said with absolute certainty about this legislation is that it was neither forward looking nor human rights compliant. It showed no foresight regarding the growth of the internet. And as for human rights, forget it. It hasn’t stopped the UK citizens becoming the most CCTV-scrutinised on earth. Face recognition software – now amazingly powerful, will soon be able to track down baddies anywhere in real time. Today, all phone calls, faxes and telephone calls are recorded and stored in case of need. There are virtually no important public bodies in the UK today without access to some of this data.
This is not even the scary stuff. We now have special mobile phone masts that are not what they seem. According to Privacy International, a non-profit think tank, they contain software that can identify phone users, and transmit malware that enables remote control of phones so that the microphone and camera of the mobile phone can be activated without the user knowing (privacyinternational.org, 2011).
But what about the internet? Of course the authorities can get access to emails, Skype communications and just about anything else on the internet. But it’s a bit complicated to organise. So, to make life easier, the government now intends to extend Ripa to the internet.
Result? Shock, horror and outrage among politicians and the media. How they invade our privacy like this?! Really? In previous articles, we have pointed out that most people have already given this information freely to the likes of Google and Facebook already. The surprise is not that the government is adding itself to the list of people with automatic access to this data but that we seem not to have noticed that privacy died a long time ago.
What’s your view? We’d like to hear from you.
Privacy International (2011), 'Wikileaks release shows terrifying power of today's surveillance industry' (Internet). Available from: https://www.privacyinternational.org/press-releases/wikileaks-release-shows-terrifying-power-of-todays-surveillance-industry. Accessed 11.04.12.