Monday, 6 October 2008

Are no personal messages off-limits from Government spying?
Michael Meacher, 5/10/08

Deep Packet Inspection may not mean much, but it ought to bring to a head the simmering tension over privacy between personal liberties and fighting terrorism which the Government has been dragging far too far in the direction of State control.

Deep Packet Inspection refers to equipment which the Home Office is planning to embed with internet and mobile phone providers (such as BT and Vodafone) so as to monitor and store the calls and emails of everyone in Britain all the time. This is a staggering project in every sense - cost, complexity, and unprecedented intrusiveness in ordinary people's lives and their most intimate communications.

It goes even further than the Government's other massive programmes of prying on citizens via identity cards, car number plate recognition, and increasingly universal CCTV. The scope of the new plan is mind-numbing. Last year there were 57bn text messages sent, mobile calls made totalling 99bn, and a trillion emails sent.

The ostensible purpose of this ultimate Big Brother surveillance programme is to fight crime and terrorism which it is said are aimed at destroying the values of our society. But there comes a point when the totalitarian methods deployed to root out crime and terrorism can insidiously undermine the fundamental values and principles of British society even more than the evil they seek to eradicate. With this latest Orwellian monstrosity, there can be no doubt we are well past that point.

Interception of calls and emails is already occurring on a far greater scale than is generally understood. Very few people realise that there are over 650 bodies which can already legally have their communications intercepted by the authorities, or that last year this was exercised in over half a million cases. I have put down PQs asking, for each of the last 10 years, how many of these calculated intercepts actually yielded information material to trapping terrorists and criminals. What is now proposed is a totally indiscriminate monitoring of the unimaginably vast database of all calls and emails by everyone everywhere all the time in this country, and the hit rate for gathering relevant information must decline to utterly infinitesimal proportions.

There are several reasons for stopping this latest venture in its tracks. The expected cost is £12bn, which on past experience of vast Government IT projects is all too likely to escalate dramatically. On the basis of the same evidence it is all too likely not to work. Nor, from several recent notorious episodes, can the authorities be trusted to keep all this personal data secure from being lost, stolen or even corruptly sold on. Nor again can we be sure that official snooping on this scale will not be used for quite other purposes than fighting crime and terrorism - like spying on companies or political opponents, or fishing expeditions to see what is turned up. It would transform Britain from a (relatively) free society into a Stasi-penetrated nightmare.

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