Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Is Theresa May's Intelligence An Oxymoron?

Theresa MayThe embattled Home Secretary has aroused the ire of the internet in Great Britain by trying to bring in surveillance laws, apparently at the behest of the intelligence services, but trying to force ISP's to store and hand over the data on request has raised the possibility of the Richard O'Dwyer case repeating itself. Today she was asked about these proposals.

Evasive, not decisive

The Home Secretary's performance at the Home Affairs Committee was lacklustre, to say the least. She was evasive and on the back foot about the three key issues: the Stephen Lawrence affair, the Abu Qatada deportation row, and the surveillance laws being planned. Overall, she seems to lack a coherent policy on how to deal with any of these matters effectively; she has not made a decision on whether or not to set up a public inquiry into allegations of police corruption in the Stephen Lawrence murder investigation, hate preacher Qatada is still here and in the process of appealing his expulsion, and refused to say whether or not internet service providers would be required to use “black boxes” to store details of customers’ website and email usage, claiming it was a “technical” question.

As much as I understand that she can't be fully in control of everything all the time, I object in the strongest terms to her being evasive when she needs to be specific.  With no clear direction on anything, she comes across as being easily led, unwilling to question anything she's told, and oblivious to the fact that Great Britain is a democracy with freedom of speech and the right to privacy embedded in its legal code.

Who wants our data?

According to Orange's blog,

Under the plans will be the suggestion that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) will be obliged to install 'black boxes' in their systems which would record all internet traffic and give the Government Communications Head Quarters (GCHQ) access to it on demand.

On top of that, critics also say there is a concern that if the 'black boxes' were introduced they would be costly - ISPs are unlikely to fund them and so they could be Government-owned - leaving them vulnerable to unwarranted 'snooping'.

The intelligence services, MI6, MI5 and GCHQ have lobbied the Government hard for the introduction of legislation which would extend their abilities to monitor the contacts between terrorists, organised criminals, cyber spies and violent groups using the internet and voice systems like Skype to hide their communications.

Who would be exempt from this monitoring and would the monitors share the information with anyone else? Could it be used for fishing expeditions to catch file-sharers and alleged copyright infringers? This is where the O'Dwyer case comes in. Personally, I have no doubt that it will because the treaty that allowed the O'Dwyer extradition to be approved (he's appealing it) was originally intended to deal with terrorists and O'Dwyer is not a terrorist. See? It's not that big a stretch.

What she says

The Home Secretary had this to say when questioned about the scope of the surveillance:

The proposal that we have is very simple - to maintain the capability for the security services to access certain data on terrorists, criminals and so on. Given that technology is evolving we need to maintain that capability.

There are new methods of communication and we wish to be able to apply what has been there with previous communications. It is our intention to bring the capability up-to-date. There has been a lot written about what this will do.

It will not be looking into emails in real-time. - Home Secretary Theresa May in The Register

However, when pressed about whether encrypted pages from sites including Google, Twitter and Facebook would be compromised by decryption technology, she became evasive and said:

"I don't think it's appropriate for me to say. It's a technical detail and I'm clear what the legislation will say on access."

This isn't terribly reassuring. Neither is this comment from The Information Age:

The proposal that we have is very simple," she told MPs. "It is to ensure that we can maintain the capability that has been in existence for a number of years for the law enforcement agencies to access certain data about communications which enables them to catch criminals and terrorists and others.

"It is my belief that it is absolutely right that the government should say, given that the technology is evolving, we wish to maintain that capability."

It's the "and others" that worries me. It looks like a fishing expedition for the law enforcement community and I don't like it.

Precedents for power grabs

The Digital Economy Act is proving hard to implement as it is, and ISP's are being forced to act as copyright cops and pay for the implementation of the systems, although they are appealing the recent ruling at the Court of Appeal and are taking it to the EU Court of Justice. The difference here is that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) was leading the fight to force the ISP's into line, not the Home Office. Still, it's not inconceiveable to think that somewhere along the line the new law is going to be used for this, is it?

I don't do the file-sharing thing and don't agree with piracy but these rulings are draconian and not in the UK's best interests. When are we going to stand up and say no to this nonsense? I'm all aboard with catching criminals and whatnot, but get a warrant and show me grounds for reasonable suspicion or get your giant beak out of my business.

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