Monday, April 2, 2012

UK government snooping - who is lobbying and why now?

Yesterday was a Sunday, an unusual day you'd think for a major government announcement to be publicised.  There have been a lot of news stories on the government's new (looks familiar to me, but we'll get to that) ideas about forcing ISPs to hold data on all emails, text messages and phone calls of all UK citizens over the last day, I was planning to write what I thought about the proposals themselves, but that has been done so well that I have decided to go in two different directions.

BTW: Two of the best articles about this are here and here - feel free to read and come back...

I want to go in two different directions - firstly who is lobbying for it and secondly why did it come out yesterday (and do the government really mean it).

1. Who is lobbying for it....

As shown in the Telegraph article - this seems a bit like a sledgehammer to crack a nut.  But is is clear that there's been behind the scenes lobbying and as with the previous government, it looks like every new administration says before they come in that they will roll-back laws that attack citizen's rights (see articles on statements about repealing the Digital Economy Act before the last election), after a short-time in power that commitment is forgotten (too busy passing new laws to kill old ones) and after around two years of lobbying before they decide that the best thing is to introduce new ones (and its for your own good, you silly citizens, don't you realise how hard this governing job is, we need more options to check up on everyone).

Smart terrorists and major crime figures would also be intelligent enough not to be caught with it.  Send your texts to throw-away mobile phones, don't actually send emails - just edit a web page and let the other person look at it, or use the many different methods of encryption or don't use electronic communication at all.  So, who would it possibly catch?  The dim or the unorganised - though again as the article from Tom Chivers says we seem to be doing OK at catching the unorganised.

So, the first possibility is that someone in the security services who doesn't realise how easily the technology can be circumvented is lobbying for it.  If this is the case, then they need some independent IT people that can show them the holes in the proposals, ("independent" meaning not someone who might benefit from installing it - yes, really, that does need to be said).  Having had a few meetings with people like senior members of government bodies to regulate the Internet, I have seen government's cluelessness and lack of understanding first-hand, so I could believe this one.

Secondly, it could be the police.  Not looking for initial security problems, but as soon as someone is found who is "of interest", then sweeping up all their friends as possible co-conspirators.  I can see that having some merit, though again only catching those who aren't very clued up on technology themselves.

Thirdly, perhaps they want the technology installed, then its remit can be widened (the slippery slope argument).  But who is the shadowy "they"?  Not sure myself, again I guess the security folks.  Perhaps its simply a game to get more resources, along the lines of "if the government give me more responsibility, I'll have to have more staff and a higher budget".

Fourthly, the vendors.  Let's be honest, they have something to sell and they'd get a huge windfall if the government can be persuaded to introduce another law forcing ISPs to install more monitoring equipment in their offices.  I can hear the sales-people now saying to the government "and just think, if you want this data and don't want to pay for the equipment, all you have to do is force the ISPs to do so.  people will have to spend a few quid more a month on their ISP connection, but you don't have to".

2, Why now?

Answer this question and maybe, just maybe, we'll know that question 1 is irrelevant.  Why now?  Why the day after probably the worst PR ten days for the government?

Now call me cynical - but after the granny-tax, reduction in income tax for those over £150,000, pasty-tax and petrol-in-a-jerry-can wheeze, did someone on Friday night wonder to themselves if they could change the story to something else?  As this proposal has been floating about for years (6 years ago, the Labour Party introduced the same thing), the discussion documents to promote it are ready and allowing it to slip out will change the political football from the series of embarrassing discussions to one that looks, at first glance, to be more significant.

But do the government really care?  Are they really interested if this bill passes or fails or under heavy pressure, will they, like the labour Party before them, just sideline it as too much bother to worry with?  In the meantime, we've all swallowed the bait, have started discussing a topic that will go on for a year and moved on from all the previous stories.  Meanwhile, the government can tell whoever is lobbying for it "see, we've done what you asked, sorry it didn't work out".

I guess we'll see if they really push this one through.  My bet is that it will die, but it will take a lot of effort to kill it from privacy campaigners and Internet experts.  Then, a new election and two years later we'll all be back.

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