In the name of preventing terrorism, public bodies could get new powers to read our emails. But what about privacy?
Next week, British members of parliament will debate a draft order granting a variety of public bodies – including seven Whitehall departments and every local authority – new powers to demand communications data.
If the order is passed, then, by August 2002, such bodies will be able to seize private information from phone companies, internet service providers (ISPs) and postal operators – without even needing to obtain a court order. The Home Office justifies the measures as being necessary to fight terrorism.
The new powers will be an extension of those granted under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Act 2000, which gave the UK authorities unprecedented powers to monitor electronic communications, and made it mandatory to provide computer passwords or encryption keys if the police ask you to.
After 11 September, US authorities looked to the RIP Act as a model for their own Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT) Act. As I have argued on spiked, prevention of terrorism is now routinely used as a blank cheque for the erosion of our right to privacy.
Furthermore, those who have demanded that the state play an active role in protecting privacy have only strengthened its hand – empowering the authorities to violate privacy whenever such violation is seen to be in the public good.
The proposed new powers have been made possible in the context of an inadequate privacy debate – which tends to compromise our liberties in the name of security, and recognises privacy concerns only inasmuch as they affect the consumer rather than the citizen.
We need a robust, public defence of privacy, to stop the authorities from extending their powers to snoop.
Sandy Starr has consulted and written on internet regulation for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and for the European Commission research project RightsWatch. He is a contributor to Spreading the Word on the Internet: Sixteen Answers to Four Questions, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 576 KB)); From Quill to Cursor: Freedom of the Media in the Digital Era, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 399 KB)); and The Internet: Brave New World?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).
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