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Tuesday, 18 June, 2002, 11:38 GMT 12:38 UK
E-mail: Who's reading yours?
Plans to increase the surveillance of e-mail, telephone and internet use in Britain have been indefinitely postponed amid growing concern about the loss of privacy.
Surveillance rights were previously exclusive to the police, inland revenue, customs and excise and intelligence services.
MPs were expecting to debate extending the powers to government departments and other bodies on Tuesday but the Home Office says "timetabling difficulties" have delayed the discussion.
Under the proposals, organisations would be able to track the source and destination of e-mails and know whereabouts in the country mobile phone calls are made from.
The information can only be sought for specific reasons, such as national security and collecting taxes but with thousands of civil servants having access to the data, critics say the plans amount to a "snooper's charter" which is open to abuse.
Do you feel your privacy would be invaded by this legislation? Will you be put off using e-mails? Are the proposed changes necessary to improve public safety?
This Talking Point was suggested by Karen, Scotland :
With new proposals currently going through Parliament allowing more government departments access to an individual's personal data such as their web history and mobile phone records, has this government gone too far towards becoming a Big Brother state?
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This Talking Point has now closed. Thank you for your comments.
In spite of appearances, Blunkett is not an idiot. This smacks of a put up job. Suggest a ludicrously draconian and unworkable measure, withdraw it in the face of inevitable resistance, and introduce the intended legislation on the back of the retraction. It's a clumsy way to get unpopular laws through and we shouldn't fall for it.
Phil Wallace, England
Perhaps some stories of actual abuse would help illustrate the dangers. For example, I know someone whose work enables them to access the logs of a major chat service. Harmless? Well, perhaps, until this man's brother was after the affections of a particular lady and requested logs of all her conversations to find out who she was talking to, meeting, etc. Safeguards against abuse? Yeah, they're already in place, and failing.
I read a saying many years ago along the lines of, 'Anybody who sacrifices a little of their freedom or privacy for security, has and deserves neither. Labour have just lost another vote here.
There is not the slightest justification for any extension to these powers to access our data. If DEFRA, local councils, or anyone else suspects us of criminal activity they should go to the police, whose job it is to investigate, and who already have all the powers of access that they need.
Richard Brown, Italy
This is a charter of stupidity and ignorance - or is it? Criminals and terrorists are going to use encryption and anonymous e-mail accounts. How on earth do the authorities think these measures will make the slightest impact to their activities?
Of course, they know it won't. It's a lame excuse to legally increase the level of intrusion into personal and private matters that do not and should not concern the authorities.
People on this list who think that allowing snooping will make you safer are misguided. If councils and minor agencies are given licence to snoop then any terror organisation can slip £50 to some council worker and find out where YOU are and who YOU know and what YOU do.
Canary Islands, Spain
Any serious threat is unlikely to be detected by reading email, even encrypted email. Terrorists and criminals are not stupid, they are more likely to use a coded email. They will also use untraceable e-mail accounts, such as Hotmail. The real threat to us comes from the government and its cronies (big business) knowing everything about us and using that information to control us.
Seems like the public are punished for terrorist action. The government needs to get a hold and punish the right people rather than infringing on the majority's rights.
Thom Leggett, UK
Prisoners have all their mail screened in case they're planning a crime. This new law shows all of us just what our government thinks of us - we're all suspected of crimes and if anyone dares to criticise the Government they'll have all the info they need to ruin your life.
I think that we are all being terribly naive. They have probably been monitoring us for years. All they are doing now is letting us know.
Michael Karcher, USA
Who's watching the people doing the watching?
I'm aware that e-mail communication is not secure and that it is possible for others to have access to it. I'm not a terrorist who plots to destroy infrastructure and take away the lives of innocent people. I just communicate with some educationists, friends and members of my family. The messages I send to those people will not be much use to others.
But as a human rights activist, I give much importance to one's privacy.
Steven Hill, USA/ UK
This stinks. Labour just lost another vote.
As network engineer I can confirm there are
various techniques and a large number of tools available
that make it impossible for anyone to read your mail, even though they have "access rights". Tools like PGP are excellent. Strong encryption, authentication algorithms make it impossible to recover your data let alone read it.
Once it is known that the government is listening in to everything we do it is likely that everyone will just start encrypting everything. There is a huge scope for corruption and misuse. Like the government could choose to dig up some "dirt" on opposition MP's at election time by digging into their emails.
Any competent terrorist group can defeat most of these security measures, even just by using 'codewords' in ordinary conversation. PGP Encryption used in conjunction with a secure, preferably foreign, email account can prevent the Government reading and probably having access to your emails. Bin Laden stopped using his satellite phone after he realised the NSA had been listening, I'm sure he's told his al-Qaeda followers the same.
And what is defined as 'subversive' these days anyway, a return to 'Reds under the bed' perhaps?
Now, if truth be told, I really don't want the government to know if I am planning a surprise birthday party. Or if I am cheating on my wife. Or if I am writing to complain about an embarrassing situation that happened at a hotel. Its none of their business.
And its not that I have some dark secret to hide that is a possible threat to national security, its just that I would like as much privacy as possible.
Should that ever change, then I will make sure to cc: Mr Blair and his entire cabinet in on all of my mail.
Until then, why doesn't Mr Blair and all the other governments let us live in the world that this supposed War on Terrorism is meant to be preserving.
A free world.
I'd be willing to open my inbox to the government & the civil service if they open up theirs to us. That way we can see just how much corruption & time wasting there is - both of which could stand in the way of victory in the War on Terror.
I was grown up being told that the UK was a democracy, and in a democracy we have freedom. Now I am older and it is clearer that this is no democracy. I have personal conversations over the Internet and to think that almost any government agency is there listening in is simply frightening. This spying is a waste of time and more important issues need to be taken care of by the government.
I am not too happy about the idea, but ultimately the police have the right in law (given due cause) to search my home, tap my phone, read my letters and go through my tax records - why should data on my computer, alone amongst my possessions, be exempt? The old argument about those with nothing to hide has more than a grain of truth in it.
Chris Cowdery, UK
Prevention of Terrorism is one thing, but the Police and Intelligence services already have these powers. The new regulations would give the same power to local councils, the health and safety executive, the Food Standards Agency and the Post Office. This extension is nothing to do with fighting terrorism, it is a straight-forward exercise in gaining police powers for an ever increasing number of government authorities.
If a serious crime is being committed then involve the police or intelligence services. If not then why should anyone else have this sort of information?
When I first started using email, about ten years ago, I was advised to put nothing on an email that I wouldn't put on a postcard, because email was inherently insecure. I think that premise still holds true.
I work for a large corporation and it's my primary job to scan personal e-mails of all employees. If problems persists with users then they are let go, but always for "other" reasons. Before being transferred to Texas, I worked in London doing the same exact job. Big brother is already alive and well and living amongst us.
B Thompson, UK
If these sort of draconian measures are increasingly used there will be a corresponding increase in the use of hard encryption. As the number of people using encryption increases how will the "subversive" elements be distinguished form the "Tunbridge-Wells knitting circle"?
First the Government introduces regulations to allow my personal medical records to be given to medical researchers and anyone who the Secretary of State decides is a fit person to see them; then my e-mail messages are to be the subject of scrutiny by my local authority. All without judicial scrutiny and without any reference to me. Seems to me that the nanny state is becoming too big for its boots!
Even during the blackest days of the USSR we were not subjected to this type of blanket scrutiny. So this is the "free" west is it?
Alex C., Australia
All this from a government who will not even tell us if their children have had the MMR jab! Just to show how we are already spied on, last week my son received a letter from the Inland Revenue asking why, if he was not receiving Benefit why was he not paying tax. I rest my case....
I wonder how many of our political leaders have the brains to understand the sheer volume of data that they are talking about here? If the US authorities couldn't spot 20 Al-Qaeda people in their midst while those people were taking flying lessons, what chance do our authorities have of spotting criminal activity among the millions of gigabytes of emails, text messages and phone calls every day? Given that there doesn't appear to have been any similar trail pointing to the 11th September events, it seems obvious that anyone who really intends to do people harm will avoid using any means of communication which is open to easy interception.
Firstly, to tackle a misconception: This bill does not give access to the contents of e-mail or phone conversations, just the "envelope". Having said that I am completely against it. What possible use could the nations fire brigades have for knowing who I e-mail?
For IT-skilled people, there are ways to delete, obscure and re-direct electronic communications. By the same token it becomes relatively simple to make it look like emails have come from someone else entirely. Surely the criminals / terrorists are more likely to have such skills that the average 'man-on-the-street'. This is a knee-jerk measure brought in to curtail our individual freedoms, and will do little if anything to curb either crime or acts of atrocity.
G.C. Jordahl, USA
I sit on an ethics committee at a university. My students have to satisfy the committee of their need to access any data, I fail to see why this should not be universal.
I'm not a terrorist, pornographer, drug smuggler or any other criminal, just an ordinary 15 year old. But I still don't want some politician reading my mail, listening to my phone calls or knowing what websites I look at. I can't see the point, I can think of better ways of the government spending its money, and it is the world's biggest ever invasion of privacy. Let me guess, Sept 11 used as an excuse?
September 11 didn't involve the internet, mobile phones, weapons of mass destruction or an axis of evil. It involved box cutter blades, absent security, incompetent agencies, highly motivated perpetrators, and a world view that's been radicalised by US foreign policy. Somehow the war on terror is being used to justify removing our freedom, conducting evermore intrusive surveillance and all in the name of a permanent state of "war" to protect the "peace".
Too all of you who 'have nothing to hide', wake up! Create a crisis and it's amazing what the average Joe is willing to forgo in the name of security. Whether you have something to hide or not, why would you willing let every part of your life be monitored? Can you control what the government will deem as acceptable behaviour in the future? You're far more trusting than me.
Governments the world over must be quietly overjoyed about 11 September - national security is now an excuse to introduce any legislation they want!
For what specific reason do the NHS and the Postal Services Commission need this information? I can't see how it would be useful. My initial reaction was that I have nothing to hide, but if someone was in a vulnerable position, where any smear could ruin them, allowing so many people access to this information will eventually result in it being leaked to the media.
Imagine if the Department of Transport spin doctors already had these powers. The checks on the Paddington survivors would have probed every facet of their lives, with no justification whatsoever. These proposals are a charter for abuse and this government has shown itself to be as unfit as any to possess such wide-ranging powers.
I think the government is pandering to big business and giving them access to our tastes and preferences so that they can target us for their marketing campaigns.
Why on earth can the authorities not continue to be required to seek judicial permission to access private records? If they have legitimate reason for concern or suspicion there should be no problem. The state has no automatic right to personal information. Good intelligence work and effective policing, plus a positive approach to dealing with the causes of terrorism are the answer. You can't protect our liberty by robbing us of it.
Brilliant! Maybe this will put an end to all the 'unofficial' leaks that keep landing government officials in hot water - if they know that what they send can be tracked, maybe they'll be more careful in future!
Privacy should be mandatory, a basic human right. Already we are watched nearly 24 hours a day by cameras on every corner. What's next, a personal black box recorder detailing everything that we do so it can be used against us? Are we living in a free world?
Since 11 September all sorts of crazy laws have been pushed through under the guise of "prevention of terrorism". 11 September was tragic, but there is no evidence the internet was in any way involved! The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill should never have been passed and extending it like this is terrible. I have nothing to hide, but I would like the option to hiding it if I did! We cannot trust the current government or grant them additional powers to fight an imaginary enemy. "For the sake of national security" is often the cry of the oppressor.
Paul R, England
What exactly is the thinking behind this legislation? What possible need does my local council have to read my e-mail or internet use? This is the type of legislation you would expect in Cold War Albania, not the so-called free UK.
The awful part is that anyone with an ounce of IT knowledge can erase their sent files. This means that only those people who know nothing will be left being left open to investigation.
To the anon user who thinks he just has to delete his sent items to avoid detection. By now your phone company has logged your telephone number and your Internet Service Provider's (ISP) number, the time and duration of your call, your ISP has a note of what time you logged on, how long you were on, how much data was sent, where you visited, what emails or messages you sent, the content of those messages and any attachments. They used to throw all this information away but changes in the law require them to now keep most of this information for 7 years! Similarly internet cafe users are not as safe as they assume. For a start all their traffic is logged, if you log in to any web based email or sites they can trace you. In fact almost any data sent can be traced to a particular network card or machine. Even if the Internet cafe used a dialup modem for every pc they could check the surveillance cameras and nab you that way. Still think anonymity is easy?
If the government is going to allow these bodies to track our communications, I'm going to cc:copy every single one of them each time I send an e-mail for whatever subject. If we all did this they would be swamped with so much mail maybe they would think again?
How are they going to keep track of internet cafe users?
There is basically no difference between an e-mail and a letter other than the time delay. Can these bodies look at our mail? No. So why should they be able to look at e-mails?
This is exactly the same as the government giving itself the right to tap our phones, bug our homes and offices, open our mail and subject us to regular body cavity probes. It is not merely a fascist breach of privacy; it is the utter dissolution of our rights to remain individuals in this police state. How will destroying public trust in government make us safer? This is evil and should be resisted with force.
Jatin Durgapal, UK
Look at governments throughout history, and you will see a history of corruption. The fewer powers given to government, the better. Why do people assume today that their governments will be any more benign than those which came before?
Well as long as you are not doing anything wrong there is nothing to worry about. I am sure it is all for good cause.
Chris B, England
What are the odds that the people watched are those most inconvenient to the establishment? Remember the FBI doing the same thing to Martin Luther King? I doubt there is anyone in public life that has nothing that could be negatively spun, and used in a dirty tricks campaign in order to discredit them.
If these proposals would help prevent another 11 September, then let them go ahead. I won't like it, but rather my privacy invaded than my life threatened.
All we can do now is attempt to cover ourselves online with proxies, gateways and altered e-mails. I'm already taking steps to automate this.
Download the freeware version of PGP and encrypt your e-mails. They won't be able to read them. The only information they'll have are the records of who you've e-mailed and what websites you've been on. I don't care who has this information as I can't see what possible interest I would be to those people. As long as they're not reading my mail I don't care.
Good question from Andy, UK - here's the answer; you may think you have nothing to hide, you may think you've said nothing subversive, but the danger is not in someone gathering the information it is what they do with it. The quality of tabloid newspaper reporting should convince you that some people can't be trusted with information, they abuse it, they twist it and contort it for their own ends.
Sometimes I get fed up with all these civil liberty groups and their so-called human rights campaigns. If I know that my e-mails or phone conversations are not a threat to national security why do I need to hide them from the authorities concerned?
I trust Andy, UK wouldn't mind sending all his letters on postcards?
Retention of mobile phone and e-mail records will do nothing to solve terrorism and will just encourage lazy policing. The people of this country are the most spied upon in the world, excepting authoritarian regimes and all it does is generate hostility towards the forces of law and order. ID cards were scrapped in the early 1950s for that reason. To those fools who say "I've got nothing to hide", this blasé attitude just gives the authorities the chance snoop further. I'm not paranoid, just angry at the continued erosion of my right to privacy and civil liberties.
17 Jun 02 | UK Politics
11 Jun 02 | UK Politics
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