International / News / Science& Tech

New Internet laws pose threat to UK privacy

Civil liberties may soon be under threat with the passage of the Communications Data Bill that is currently being redrafted by the Home Office. If the Bill passes as it stands, the government’s intelligence agencies will be able, by law, to monitor all communications anyone in the UK makes, including online, and keep track of what websites you access.

The proposals have been met with outcries by civil liberty groups who have claimed this will lead to further and further Internet clamp downs from the government.

In a potential sign of what is to come, this past week, Iceland’s Minister of the Interior, Ogmundur Jonasson, proposed new online censorship laws that would ban access to online porn sites from within the country.

Jonasson insists the measure would be brought in to protect Icelandic children against X-rated images. To do this the IP addresses of X-rated sites would be blocked and X-rated material could not be bought using Icelandic credit cards.

The printing and distributing of X-rated materials is already banned in Iceland, as are strip clubs, but this is the first time a Western democracy has tried to ban online adult sites.

The Bill is unlikely to pass, however, given the staunch opposition that has met it from politicians and the general public. There are fears this Bill will lead to further government censorship like in countries like Saudi Arabia and China; where the internet censorship has become so bad the moniker, the Great Firewall of China, has been adopted.

While unlikely to pass, the Bill raises a bigger question about Internet security and privacy, especially here in the UK where there have been big concerns regarding the Communications Data Bill which was proposed last year by the Coalition government.

The Communications Data Bill

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Under the Bill, Internet providers would be forced to provide all communications data to GCHQ, the UK government’s official listening station, in real time. This would mean that potentially every phone call made, text, email, tweet, Facebook message sent and even Skype call made from inside or to the UK could be monitored by GCHQ, as well as every website page you have visited. This information could then be stored for 12 months.

Based in Cheltenham, GCHQ is part of Her Majesty’s intelligence services alongside MI5 and MI6. Its 5,300 employees monitor communications from and to the UK concerning national security. In 2009 GCHQ revealed it had initiated a £1 billion project called “Mastering the Internet” to help monitor online communications and it is feared that under the new proposals civil liberties may be at risk.

To prepare for the passage of new Internet laws, GCHQ set about recruiting mathematicians and physicists to create new ground-breaking algorithms that will be able to sift through troves of data and pick out keywords or phrases that will make for “valuable intelligence”.

The software GCHQ will be using will be similar to that possessed by the National Security Agency (NSA) in America which the US Supreme Court banned the use of.

The data that would be allowed to be kept and monitored would include the time, duration, originator and recipient of a communication and the location of the device used. To see content, officers would need a warrant but would not need the permission of a judge to see details of the time and place of messages, provided a crime was being investigated or in matters of national security.

How matters of security is defined, however, is still uncertain and it is these cloudy areas that are causing concern.

A similar Bill was proposed under the previous Labour government called the Interception Modernisation Programme, after the intelligence and security communities claimed they needed greater powers to deal with the new threats of the modern world which include potential Internet terrorism.

The Bill was shot down by Tory and Lib Dem opposition and similarly the Communications Data Bill has been met just as staunchly. Tory backbenchers and Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, threatened to oppose the bill unless it was seriously amended and in December a joint committee chaired by Lord Blencartha released its report on the draft proposal.

In the report the joint committee claimed, “If Clause 1 of the draft Bill – which, as currently drafted, gives the Home Secretary sweeping powers to order the retention of any kind of communications data by any communications service provider – is narrowed, and safeguards are put in place to ensure that any new powers are not abused, a new Bill could be introduced that would work.”

However, the report went onto say that the potential Bill needs to “protect and serve UK citizens without trampling on the privacy of those citizens. This is something the current draft Bill does not achieve.”

When reached for comment over what the new draft may consist of, both GCHQ and the Home Office refused to comment at the present time.

Acxiom: The wealthiest company you have never heard of

Acxiom's logo

Acxiom’s logo

This lack of certainty over what information the government and others will be able to gather thanks to information published on the web is causing a growing concern with each passing year.

Companies like Acxiom, for example, has made it its business model to collect information about as many people as possible and then sell on this data to retailers who then use your likes and dislikes to recommend you products they think you will buy.

The US based company, which has now spread to the UK, France, Germany Brazil, China, Poland, Australia and New Zealand, is estimated to know on average 1,500 facts about half a billion people worldwide.

What car you drive, what job you have, where you shop, how much you spend, if you have a cat or a dog, who your friends and family are, their names, etc. Companies such as Acxiom now know enough about us that they can recommend us a movie and accurately estimate how we will rate that movie within half a star.

But when it comes to their transparency, Acxiom suddenly love privacy.  A faceless organisation, Acxiom operates on a no name policy meaning you can only speak to members of staff whose names you already know. There are no staff names listed with their contact information on their website.

However, in a press release put out last year, Christian Peck was named the new managing director for the UK. But when The Archer asked for Mr Peck Acxiom claimed there was no one by that name working there and that they had “never heard of him.”

If it sounds Orwellian it’s because it is.

 Chris Scott

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