Has David Cameron gone too far? A British surveillance expert weighs in
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Photo Credit: Błąd / Creative Commons

One of the writers of the UK’s current surveillance law reveals the limits of government spying, and why Cameron is taking a step too far

In the wake of last week’s terror attacks on France, UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s announced Sunday that if he is re-elected, he would promote legislation “that makes sure we do not allow terrorists safe spaces to communicate with each other.”

Cameron’s remarks have been interpreted to mean that he would crack down on data encryption, as well as extend the government’s authority to monitor social media conversations and web searches.

The reactions were swift and furious, not only from privacy advocates, but from the tech community as well.

The Next Web called the plan, “catastrophic for Internet freedom.” Boing Boing’s Cory Doctorow said it “would endanger every Briton and destroy the IT industry.”

One of the writers of the UK’s current surveillance law reveals the limits of government spying, and why Cameron is taking a step too far

Geektime caught up with Graeme McGowan, a former British government agency official who also helped draft the Code of Practice for RIPA [Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act] Part III – an element of the United Kingdom’s current surveillance law – to explain the issues.

McGowan told Geektime that despite what many people think, governments of free countries do not have carte blanche to conduct mass surveillance of their populations.

“In the UK, everything that is done has to be necessary and proportionate.”

In fact, companies like Google and Facebook often have access to more information about you than the government.

McGowan illustrates a hypothetical problem British intelligence encounters.

“There are thousands of Islamic State accounts on Facebook and they’re using social media to organize their activities.” But with Facebook’s current privacy settings, a person could organize a private group planning a terror attack, invite their friends, and no one would know they were a member of the group, not even law enforcement.

The onus would be on Facebook to report such activity, but would they? Even if the government had a warrant to look at someone’s Facebook profile, the company’s servers are in Dublin and not subject to RIPA.

In 2012, Cameron’s government proposed the Draft Communications Data Bill, or commonly referred to as the “snooper’s charter.” It would have required companies to store data communications for 12 months, including social media messages, VoIP, gaming, emails and phone calls. Then, if they were served a warrant, they would have had to hand the information over to the government. But this bill never passed – it was blocked in parliament by the Liberal Democrats.

At present, phone and Internet companies in Britain are required to keep records (but not content) of calls, texts and Internet use.

In terms of encryption, the government does not have the right to decrypt live messages or discussions in the current law, but law enforcement agents can ask a criminal to make encrypted data intelligible if the criminal had put some form of password or encryption on a device in addition to its operating system. But if the criminal has disappeared, or simply refuses to speak, law enforcement are out of luck.

That’s why Cameron wants to step up the government’s powers, making it impossible to keep information encrypted in the face of a police warrant.

Law enforcement efficiency v. right to privacy

McGowan says that one of the greatest challenges for law enforcement is the “lack of ability to lawfully follow people’s activity on social media and the World Wide Web.”

As Andrew Parker, the director general of Britain’s MI5 said in a speech on Thursday, “the capability to intercept these communications is so important to MI5 – if we lose that ability, if parts of the radar go dark and terrorists are confident that they are beyond the reach of MI5 and GCHQ, acting with proper legal warrant, then our ability to keep the country safe is also reduced.”

McGowan is nevertheless very alert to the privacy issue. “It’s everyone’s right to keep things private. Encryption protects business data from hackers of every description.”

That’s why he is bearish on Cameron’s planned legislation.

“Cameron’s idea will never take off, and rightly so because we all have a right to privacy. Unfortunately the bad guys are also using encryption to coordinate actions, and that is the challenge.”

Featured Image Credit: Błąd / Creative Commons

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Simona Weinglass

About Simona Weinglass


I’m an old-school journalist who recently decided to pivot into high-tech. I work in high-tech marketing as well as print and broadcast media covering politics, business culture and everything in between.

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