Overstepping the boundary?
ThinkingShift reader, Murali, sent me links to two very interesting news items this week. One I was set to blog on; the other one I didn’t know about. One is about the European Union (EU), the other about China – both are disturbing. I’ll blog on China in my next post.
The first item has me thinking twice about moving to Europe. The EU seems to follow anything the US and its Department of Homeland Snooping Security does in the way of monitoring and surveilling. Trotting out the usual mantra of “terrorist threats”, an EU telecommunications directive ( 2006/24/EC) will see Internet Service Providers being forced to store details of user emails, internet phone calls, text messages and webpage visits from April 6 2009 for a period of 12 months. The content of emails and calls will not be held but ISPs will record the source and destination of a communication; type of communication; date, time, duration; identities of recipients of the communication; and location of mobile communication equipment. So it’s pretty clear “who sent what to whom” and “who visited what website” would be identifiable and that connections between people could be mapped. What a great way to create a profile of everyone’s relationships and communications. The Stasi would salivate over this.
The Swedes, however, seem to be the most intelligent Europeans – they have chosen to ignore the EU directive and the Germans are going to fight it out in court over constitutionality of the directive. But the Brits – well, what can we expect, they adopted it straight away in their haste to map and monitor everybody’s communications (and it seems without any debate in Parliament). You probably also read recently that the UK had a plan to monitor social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Bebo so they can snoop on the connections between individuals. Is this all just one step towards the UK Government’s dream? – a central database of electronic communications traffic data of the entire UK population (all part of the proposed Intercept Modernisation Programme).
Seems to me that Governments are overstepping their boundaries but, in this case, they’re smart and getting a third-party (ISPs) to do the actual dirty work. Suppose officials identify a terrorist suspect. They get a warrant (one hopes) to force an ISP to divulge data about this individual and all individuals connected to that person via phone calls, text messages, web searches and so on. It’s no stretch of the imagination to say that many an innocent person would probably have unknowingly been in contact with the suspected terrorist, completely unaware that this person is a terrorist (after all, I don’t think terrorists wear a sign around their head that says “terrorist” nor do they begin an email saying “Hi, I’m your local terrorist…”).
What is very underhanded is that this directive was classified as “commercial” rather than classified as a policing and security matter. If the latter, Sweden and Germany’s objections would have vetoed the directive. And what agencies exactly will be sharing this goldmine of information? How many hundreds of public agencies will be snooping? How can we be certain the ISPs won’t lose the data about individual communications or use it inappropriately?
You might be able to bypass all this snooping if you encrypt your emails (although I think the UK has anti-decryption legislation) and use Skype for IM and Internet voice calls (except don’t bother doing that in China because they wiretap Skype IM).
Now, of course, a lot of sheep will bleat “if you have nothing to hide…”. But even if you have nothing to hide, I think we should all be concerned that our conversations (even if deleted) will remain on an ISP’s hardware. And all this data is protected from misuse by what? The ISPs own securities measures, which are out of your control. Furthermore, the EU has agreed to share private data, such as travel plans, website visits and so on with the US.
Let us recall the words of Benjamin Franklin, “Those who would give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
You can read the EU Directive here.