Should we be concerned about the UK Government’s draft Communications Bill, or is it just a lot of hot air? Here we will look at some of the important issues involved. Firstly, what is this Bill? Essentially it is a proposed extension of existing powers of the authorities to be supplied on demand with information on anyone’s internet related communications history. It means that information on every email that is sent, each text message, all mobile phone communications, each social network communication, and every website visited must be retained, and must be searchable.
The type of information that is included is often referred to as metadata, as it is the information that is associated with the message rather than the message content itself. Taking email security as an example, the information will include the header information including the recipient, the time the message was sent, and the location from which it was sent. Although the content of encrypted email cannot be read, encryption does not hide the associated metadata.
So, what is the debate? While supporters of the draft bill argue that it is necessary in order to maintain the security of people against terrorist and criminal activities, protesters are concerned that the privacy of the individual will be compromised; in the words of the government committee that reviewed the draft bill it will “trample over privacy.”
What are the checks and balances? There is a thin line between security and liberty. The greater the powers of security forces, the more compromised the freedom of the individual becomes. There are countless examples of this throughout the history of civilization.
We need to be able to sleep safely in our beds knowing that our country is protecting us from crime and terrorism, but we also need to be free from worries that some corrupt or incompetent official will use our private information in ways that could be harmful to us, for instance by selling it. We should not have to live our lives in fear of being snooped on.
Communications have changed considerably over recent times, and much serious crime and terrorism makes use of the internet. It is reasonable that the authorities should do all in their power to monitor this. It is just a matter of getting the balance right, and we should be concerned how this is achieved.