Email snooping laws: as idiotic as they are illiberal

Benjamin Franklin
In these situations, one should always ask: WWBFD?

“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” It’s usually attributed to Benjamin Franklin, but whoever said it, it’s worth remembering.

David Davis, who seems to be enjoying the freedom of the back benches to throw bombs at the Government, has hurled his latest grenade on this morning’s Today programme. The Government is dusting off plans, first proposed under Labour (what is it about being in power that makes you suddenly want to snoop on everybody?), which would allow them to monitor the calls, emails, text messages, and internet activity of everybody in the United Kingdom in real time.

This is the sort of thing that goes on in The Wire or Homeland, except that it’s in real life, and in Britain, and – crucially – without court supervision. At the moment if the police or security services wish to monitor your emails, they need to request approval from a magistrate in advance; anything that went on before approval was given would be lost. Under the new laws, every email, etc, would be stored by service providers, and if the Government later decided that you were a terror threat, it would be dredged up. My colleague Matt Warman describes this as “analogous to asking Royal Mail to keep a copy of everything that it handles, and make it available to Government on request.”

I have no idea whether this will be of use to the security services in stopping the NEVER-ENDING THREAT OF TERRORISM. Matt reckons it’ll most likely be pretty straightforward to circumvent if you want to, which most actual terrorists probably will, if you think about it. But maybe the Government – always so brilliant at seeing through large IT projects, remember – will be able to make it watertight and smoothly operating. Maybe it will make it a bit easier for that guy out of Spooks to keep an eye on Al-Qaeda In The Chilterns’ Abu Cartwright and Paddy O’Wotsit of the Progressive Electronic IRA. But they still shouldn’t do it.

For a start, whatever the Government is currently doing about terror on British soil is, pretty much, working. Since 2005 the number of people who have been killed on the British mainland by terror attacks is precisely one. That one person, incidentally, was Kafeel Ahmed, the man who drove a propane-loaded 4×4 into the doors at Glasgow International Airport, giving himself fatal burns but seriously hurting nobody else. If we include Northern Ireland, it’s very slightly worse: in 2009 two soldiers and a PSNI officer were shot dead; last year another police officer was killed by a bomb under his car. That’s five people (including one suicide bomber) in six years; by comparison, a total of 10 people were killed by “contact with hornets, wasps and bees” in the years 2007, 2008 and 2009. Your annual chances of being killed by a terrorist in the UK, by that admittedly far-from-statistically-significant measure, are one-quarter as big as those of being killed by a social insect.

That’s not to say that there hasn’t been lots of attempted terror. There have been dozens of defused bombs and uncovered plots and unfulfilled threats. But that just goes to show that the anti-terror machinery is doing its job, and has no need for sweeping powers of intrusion into people’s lives.

But even if there were a much greater risk – as great, say, as your risk of falling from a cliff (40 deaths in three years, 16 times as many per year as from terror attacks) – it would still not be enough to justify snooping into the lives of the innocent. How many among us would really be happy that our ISPs were storing our whole browsing history? God knows I’ve set mine to automatically clear itself after every use. And phone calls, emails, everything – do you want the Government having access (even if they promise, cross my heart and hope to die, that they won’t look at it) to everything you’ve done?

Ben Goldacre on Twitter made a very good point earlier. “I reckon I could build a pretty solid window into your soul from a year’s worth of browser activity. Every thought you’ve had, fact you’ve checked. I could see what kind of news interests you, your hobbies, your obsessions. I could interpolate your mood, correlate that with other stuff.” It’s true. These days, your life – and, more importantly, your thoughts – are online. If I were to Google “extramarital dating services” or “foot fetish porn” – or even “sad songs” or “break-up music” – that tells you something about what I’m thinking. Would you let someone have access to all that? Whatever they say about not looking at it? Will Nick Clegg set an example and open up his internet history for the last 12 months to public scrutiny, just to show that those with nothing to hide have nothing to fear?

There are other, more practical considerations. Forcing businesses to store every email and web-click means they will have to get bigger servers, which will cost money. And it’ll make that data vulnerable, simply by the fact that it exists, to data theft (laptops go missing, don’t they, Ministry of Defence? Memory sticks are distressingly losable as well). But that’s not the reason this is wrong. The reason this is wrong is that, in a liberal democracy, we assume that people are innocent until proven guilty; we assume that the Government has no place digging around in their lives unless they have specific reason to believe otherwise. Totalitarian countries start from the opposite assumption: that people’s lives are government business. I’m not saying that letting Theresa May read my emails would turn the United Kingdom into Iran, but it would be a tiny step in that direction, and that is not the right direction to travel.


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